Summerland (2020)

“I know you won’t be here long, but while you are, it’s yours.”

Summerland brings all of the hallmark twee and whimsy you expect from an indie picture set in a lush European countryside, and with that comes flourishes of considerable and unexpected (if sometimes heavily calculated) dramatic depths. It’s a palatable picture which thankfully defies the one-note tone established early on, instead embracing the theater and the comedy of life in a film that’s playful, ruminating, light-hearted, and completely empathetic. After all, the one way road of sympathy can only take us so far. Summerland knows tragedy and puts us behind the wheel of a vehicle that’s easy to drive and turn and understand. I always enjoy a crowd-pleaser with brains and heart.

As hammers furiously hit on an old typewriter in the near the present, Summerland introduces us to an aged woman and the memories of her past before hitting the carriage return lever, taking both us and the lead decades back to WWII. Alice (Gemma Arterton) doesn’t seem much different as a shelled spinster than she briefly did before as a prickly gammer. She’s a seclusive folklore author with a temper, referred to as “The Beast of the Beach” by local children, making her into one of the imaginary and magical characters she commits to paper. Their teasing is of her own creation and she can’t help but retaliate. Mostly though, Alice just wants to be left alone with her thoughts, allowing her fingers to do the talking and the living on her behalf. Sounds like most writers to me.

Alice’s seclusion and locked front door are forced open when she’s made to take in Frank (Lucas Bond), an evacuee escaping London. She detests, pleading with local authorities that the young lad will get in the way of her work. Turns out apathetic authors are still bound to the same social contract as the rest of the community. Summerland is at its least surprising in these moments of abject sourness, pitting the silent curmudgeon against the kind and curious child. Youthful energy proves to be overwhelming, and more importantly, invigorating for the solemn Alice. She’s too grown and too mature to believe she might fall through a looking glass into a Wonderland, but she can instill the magic of the idyllic Summerland – a fictional mirage on the edge of the horizon and reason – into a child who’s willing and wanting to see what isn’t really there. But then again, maybe it really is. It depends if you believe.

In one of the few instances this year, writer/director Jessica Swale’s delightful and ultimately powerful Summerland took what could have been a conventional story and turned it on end, emerging as a forward-thinking and positive depiction of how life might have been different. Such is the case with Alice’s long lost love Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, one of the most exquisite and expressive screen presences of our time), shown to us through flashbacks. With Vera she knew romantic love, the kind that could have been but never came true. With Frank, she relearns – or maybe is even taught – how to care for someone other than herself. Swale’s script affords growth of the head and the heart, and it’s one of the rare war-time films that highlights the hurt going on back home instead of the shooting and the killing. Ultimately, Summerland is a love story fueled by hope, and the uplifting final act assures audiences that magic can be real if you believe in it with all your heart. Not a bad message for then or for now. Or for any time, really.

“Stories have to come from somewhere.”

Rating: 3 out of 5

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