There is an interesting question posed by “Summerland” at the outset of writer/director Jessica Swale’s film. We initially meet Alice (played by Penelope Wilton) in 1975. Disturbed from her writing by some kids raising money, she yells at them and then settles back into her work. At that point the movie travels back to World War II and we see a younger Alice (now played by Gemma Arterton), experiencing troubles with a different group of children. As she would do in later years, she yells at the kids. Soon after, she finds herself put in charge of a young evacuee from London, Frank (Lucas Bond).
Now, there is no way anyone made a movie about a single woman taking in a child during the Second World War and hating him and the entire experience. It just didn’t happen and “Summerland” isn’t going to go down that road either.
So, the question: how does “Summerland” take us from this young Alice who hates kids to the old Alice who hates kids while still giving us this story about how she learns to love a kid. It is intriguing and more than enough to immediately hook the viewer.
Now, sadly, I can’t get you the answer to the whole conundrum here. To do that would be to spoil the film.
One of the most impressive things about “Summerland” is that rather than choosing to tackle one thing, it takes on so many. It’s about World War II in England. It’s about social isolation. It’s about our responsibilities towards one another. It’s about love.
As noted, there is no surprise as we watch a relationship form between Frank and Alice. The laws of storytelling dictate that it must be so, but Bond and Arterton offer up this back and forth in sometimes heartwarming and sometimes truly sad ways.
Swale builds these characters as real people, not just the means to an end. She may have messages that she is trying to get out in the film, but the characters do not feel purpose-built to promote the message. Rather, any message feels like the natural outgrowth of Alice and Frank.
Added into the mix is Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Vera. She is introduced in a flashback (perhaps this makes her a flashback in the main flashback) and quickly becomes an important part of the story. Quietly but clearly, the “Summerland” shows us the ever-growing love between Alice and Vera.
Just as with the overarching question in the film about how Alice goes from 1940-something to 1975, as soon as we meet Vera, we begin to wonder how the relationship crumbles. It has to or we don’t get the Alice, living alone before Frank comes, of WWII.
If I have suggested that any of these questions are mysteries being unraveled by watching the film, I have done it and you a disservice. They are not mysteries at all, but rather hooks. They are ways in which Swales draws the audience into the film and then keeps them involved as it progresses. “Summerland” is not a heavy film, but it has real things it wants to talk about and to make that discussion happen, it pushes for an active viewer, not a passive one.
While the issues it wants to discuss are serious and sometimes sad, again, it is not a heavy film. In fact, it might be best to describe it as “an utter delight.” “Summerland” veritably sings with its construction of relationships, be it Alice and Frank, Alice and Vera, Frank and Edie (a friend from school played by Dixie Egerickx), and anything with any of the townspeople. This is a place which may not be perfect, but where one can easily imagine themselves living happily. It is a place where not everyone is as kind as they ought to be, where not everyone is as considerate as they ought to be, but where, it seems, people try.
Not a perfect movie—some of the revelations and conclusions feel a little too well-wrapped—Swale has still created something here which not only gives one pause, but gives one pleasure as well. Particularly in this moment when so many are struggling, “Summerland” provides a look at a different time, a different era, where people were also struggling and where they somehow managed to find a path through.
photo credit: IFC Films