The beauty of an unexpected friendship during wartime is a fairly common idea for a film. Whilst Summerland may not have the strongest hook – like the gut-punching premise of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or the unique brand of humour in Jojo Rabbit – it’s still pretty good.
What gives this old-fashioned period drama some weight is in its contemporary depiction of relationships. Alice (Gemma Arterton) is a reclusive writer in the British countryside, sheltered from the horrors of the London Blitz, who is entrusted to care for young Frank (Lucas Bond), one of London’s many evacuees. The energetic boy’s spirit is initially at odds with Alice’s veiled gloom but, steadily, the time she spends looking after him allows her own buoyancy to recover.
Parallel to their odyssey is Alice’s pre-WW2 saga, when she was in a passionate, cloaked romance with Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Director and writer Jessica Swale isolates the cultural context of an interracial, homosexual relationship by simply putting a microscope on the intense human emotions that swell up when we’re in love. By obscuring the natural prejudices of the time – and by casting two phenomenally gifted actresses to perform the parts – the tale of Vera and Alice is believable and touching, shrouded with intrigue about their ultimate destinies. If a viewer can’t connect with Alice and Vera’s universally relatable love affair, then Summerland fails, for it is the crux of the movie that soon imaginatively materialises within the main narrative of Alice taking care of Frank.
That said, there’s certainly a specific target audience for this kind of movie. It’s a wholesome, middlebrow entertainment that plays things safe in terms of thematic and narrative content – even as it covers a contextually taboo issue – and mostly appeals to a greying demographic, or at least to those who enjoyed Arterton in films such as Vita & Virginia and Their Finest. It’s easy to imagine that this soapy tearjerker will soon be prescribed as an ideal Sunday matinee.
Summerland is released in select cinemas on 31st July 2020.
Watch the trailer for Summerland here: