In Kent, 1975, a frizzled-haired frustrated writer clicks away at her typewriter. A curmudgeon, when two kids arrive at her doorstep to fundraise, she bitingly shouts, “bugger off.” Ms. Alice Lamb (Penelope Wilton) is the writer, however, the meat of her story takes place during the 1940’s. Here, at the height of World War II, yet set in a sleepy village, the writer confidently strides through her small town. Disliked by many, she disdains them in equal measure. The young Alice (Gemma Arterton) lives her private, independent life, crafting and researching her next book, until a surprise shows up on her doorstep. In playwright Jessica Swale’s sweet debut feature, Summerland, lost love; grief; and mythology combine for a delightful narrative that easefully balances seismic coming-of-age events with a soulful lesbian love story.
Alice, a proud outsider with a dry sense of humor, isn’t enamored by children. Often picked on by the local kids; they stuff dead branches and dirt into her mail slot, she chases them off the property of her coastal countryside cottage. Later when Alice visits a local shop, a girl begs her mother to buy a chocolate bar. The confectionery is expensive because of rationing during the war. In a hilariously cruel moment, Alice purposely buys the candy bar right from under the girl. Arterton thrives in these scenes, espousing a devilish chaos that she seems to relish.
In a moment where England treated their children as their highest asset — to the point of transporting them away from the dangers of the London blitzkrieg to foster-families living in the English countryside — Alice would rather they stay away from her. But her solitary existence changes when the adolescent Frank (Lucas Bond) — whose father is stationed in the air force and mother is in the ministry — appears on her doorstep.
Alice and Frank’s guardian-ward relationship grows organically through the playwright’s rich dialogue. The hardened, and oft-times temperamental Alice, usually snaps at Frank due to his inquisitive nature. But soon the writer comes to see his interest in the natural world — Frank like any young boy loves digging in dirt and playing with insects and animals — as akin to her. With regards to Alice, she dedicates her life to studying mythology; witches; and paganism. When Frank arrives, she’s writing a book about mirages taking the form of floating islands over the sea, and their origins in folklore. She especially loves explaining to Frank about Summerland, the pagan heaven. Bond, as Frank, plays these scenes, and the later dramatic revelations, with an easeful sincerity.
Frank later befriends a girl at school named Edie (Dixie Egerickx) who, with Alice, demonstrates the ostracizing independent women face. Often churlish, Edie, like the other children, believes Alice is either a witch or a German spy. However, as with Alice, Edie is initially cold toward the ebullient Frank. When they first meet she explains, “I don’t believe in partners or sharing… I’m an individualist.” Her and Alice also share the same trauma: the former lost her mother and the latter’s father passed away at a young age. People find Alice living alone as odd, and in the process, believe she’s a bad influence. The fact that Alice studies witches — women who were often persecuted for their free spirit or due to being unmarried or widowed — can’t be lost. Furthermore, Edie claims to have overheard her grandmother saying how Edie doesn’t fulfill the “feminine ideal.” The young girl is a mirror to what Alice would’ve been at a similar age.
Ostensibly a coming-of-age narrative, in Summerland, Swale crafts a lesbian love story. In flashbacks to the 1920’s, Alice dated Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and the pair formed a near-unbreakable bond. Nevertheless, their relationship crumbles under the weight of Vera wanting children and a family, things Alice can’t provide in the 1920’s, a moment when anti-sodomy laws could have deemed the pair’s love as illegal. While Swale captures their love story with an intimate lens — one which, during a lighthearted scene, patiently glides over the couple laying in the grass together — the presence of a mixed-race relationship offers several avenues for exploration, yet the film acts oblivious to the pair’s racial composition.
Briskly paced, Swale quietly balances the narrative’s coming-of-age components with the subplotted love story. She even throws in a large-scale sequence set in the fiery aftermath of a blitzkrieg, where Volker Bertelmann’s rustic score takes flight. And even though the twist during the last act almost drives the film off-course, she’s still able to pull audiences back in. Arterton, as equal parts outrageous and elusive, shines in every second on screen and makes way for a poignant ending. Swale’s Summerland, through its uptempo editing and endearing characters, is a throwback to homespun historical narratives, and a quaint slice of heaven.
Summerland is available on VOD and all digitial channels, via IFC Films.