Film Review: Summerland

Despite its tragic historical rooting in World War 2, writer/director Jessica Swale’s Summerland has a remarkably cosy feeling to it. 

The film tells the story of Alice Lamb, played by Gemma Arterton, a reclusive writer who reluctantly befriends her new young ward Frank (Lucas Bond), when he is intrusted into her car after the London Blitz. While the outside story is clearly one of maternal bonding, under the surface is a refreshing take on an LGBTQIA+ love story, with a peculiar backbone in paganism and mythology.

The first thing about Summerland that catches the eye is the gorgeous natural backdrop. The picturesque seaside town of Kent which the film is set in (though in reality, filmed in the bordering East Sussex) provides an effortlessly cinematic backdrop to this equally dramatic and romantic story. The iconic white cliffs and sullen rocky beaches give the film an incredibly unique feeling – exposing international audiences to a part of England they might not be quite so familiar with.

Beyond the beautiful scenery, the story of Summerland is entirely original, setting itself apart from the dozens of charming English romances before it. Beyond the surface plot of a reclusive writer being stuck with a young boy that she’s hesitant to raise, the film takes a page from paganism and other classic mythology to create a clear metaphor; for clinging onto whatever beliefs in life that will make us happy, whether they’re accepted by others or not.

Playing into that undercurrent of the unconventional is the core love story between Arterton’s Alice and Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Vera. Telling an interracial lesbian love story in the modern day may not seem like such a feat, but the historical rooting in 1970’s is a bittersweet reminder of how different our world was not all that long ago, and how beautiful the triumph of such love can be (even if that love is rocky at times).

While the film’s reference to the titular ‘Summerland’ – a pagan interpretation of heaven, where those who die survive in a parallel world all around us – serves as a relatively minor plot thread underneath the greater focus on love and belonging, it does inform a great deal of the film’s technical elements.

Much of the film’s use of score and cinematography is heavily influenced by this notion of Summerland, a bright and vibrant world that exists all around us, yet rarely in sight. Alice’s happy memories of her time with Vera are often accentuated by a warm vibrance in colour, unlike the present day’s much duller, bluer tones. The film’s use of score also adds a great deal to the dreamy feeling of Summerland, providing a much-appreciated texture to the portrait crafted in tandem with the cinematography and performances. 

In terms of cast there aren’t any weak performances either, with newcomers Lucas Bond and Dixie Egerickx (playing Frank and Edie respectively) each offering an engaging performance despite their young age. Film and TV veterans Penelope Wilton and Tom Courtenay even make appearances as an older Alice Lamb and the whimsical Mr Sullivan respectively, as an extra treat for diehard fans of British cinema.

Gemma Arterton of course stands up confidently among the rest, leading the film well in her starring role. Her portrayal of Alice incorporates a sense of sensitivity yet reprehension that feels utterly authentic from a character who has loved and lost in a turbulent time for a lesbian woman.

Much like the mythology that forms a backbone to its story, Summerland feels remarkably like a modern story despite its historical rooting. While still in many ways conforming to the conventions of a traditional romantic drama with a bit of a twist, all the elements of this film come together to make a truly engaging story that tugs on more than a few heart strings.

A heartfelt tearjerker set to the stunning seaside backdrop of 1970’s Kent, England, Summerland is an elegantly told romantic drama and a fitting addition to the British Film Festival 2020.

The British Film Festival runs from 10-29 November at Palace Barracks and Palace James St. Get in early with your bookings as cinemas are at reduced capacity – complying with COVID-safe protocols.

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