After previous roles in films such as Their Finest and Vita & Virginia, Gemma Arterton continues her extensive run of starring in quintessentially British period dramas with Summerland, the story of a downbeat writer who is forced to look after an evacuee during the Second World War. While introducing a few interesting plot points and offering some stunning visual work, this movie treads the narrative ground of too many films that have come before, feeling frustratingly familiar despite its promising concept.
Summerland follows Arterton’s Alice, an academic who is reeling from a failed relationship with Vera (an underused Gugu Mbatha-Raw), as she is saddled with Frank (Lucas Bond), a child forced to flee London during the blitz. It is made very clear early on that Alice’s heartbreak has made her somewhat cold-of-heart, with writer-director Jessica Swale repeatedly demonstrating the character’s lack of compassion in the first act – to the point where it feels almost tiresome. In fact, by the time our lead refuses to give a chocolate bar to a hungry young child, it becomes nearly impossible for the audience to root for her happiness or success.
The lack of empathy for Alice becomes even more profound once the viewer sees glimpses of the relationship she is recovering from. Despite the best efforts of Mbatha-Raw and Arterton, there is no real chemistry between the pair, with Swale’s use of dreamlike cinematography and a corny score failing to fool the audience into buying into their dynamic. The film does use this subplot to draw upon some interesting themes relating to homosexuality during the 1940s, but ultimately hits every narrative beat that one would expect.
Yet, just as the audience has given up hope on the lead character – and indeed the film – Frank is introduced into her life. Without contributing anything particularly surprising to the narrative, Bond’s childlike wonder and relentless enthusiasm is impressively effective, and the mother-son relationship established between himself and Arterton is certainly believable. Frank’s positive influence on Alice feels natural and fun, forcing this seemingly hopeless protagonist to open up to the idea of happiness once more – and at just the right time.
Arterton does a terrific job of demonstrating this growth in character, slowly becoming warmer and more charming as the film progresses. Where early on the actor is pinned with on-the-nose, unsubtle dialogue, Arterton gets the chance to display her magnificent talent more frequently over time, injecting real heart into the story and eventually winning the audience over to her side. Alice’s development is undoubtedly predictable, but through Arterton’s performance it becomes pleasantly enjoyable.
Swale underpins the film’s sentimental storytelling with some stunning cinematography, working with director of photography Laurie Rose to take full advantage of the UK’s gorgeous coastline. Using vibrant colours and some intimate camerawork, Summerland offers a steady flow of spectacular shots, brilliantly capturing the beauty of its Southern England setting.
The movie attempts to complement its emotional narrative with light-hearted humour, but struggles to find an effective formula for its approach. While Dixie Egerickx displays some superb comedic ability as the young Edie, her rebellious character proving to be the film’s most amusing outlet, the overall lack of subtlety leads many of Summerland’s gags to feel almost childish. There are several attempts at providing laughs, but very few of them encourage more than a smirk.
For her first feature film, writer-director Jessica Swale shows remarkable potential, delivering a gorgeous film with some entertaining plot devices and an excellent leading performance from Gemma Arterton. However, with a script that lacks subtlety and feels too similar to previous British dramas, Summerland plays it slightly too safe, posing little in the way of individuality. It is a solid effort at an enjoyable movie, but fails to break any new ground.
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Summerland is an impressive yet uninspiring debut feature from writer-director Jessica Swale, managing to entertain but sadly not astound.
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