Movie Review: Summerland (2020)

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"Life is not kind," Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton) informs a young World War II evacuee from London placed in her care, before adding, "what matters is how you deal with it." 

Sent to live with the intensely private, iconoclastic writer at her seaside home in southern England, although Frank's arrival comes as an unwelcome shock, she soon discovers that she has much more in common with the inquisitive boy (played by Lucas Bond) than she ever would have imagined in writer-director Jessica Swale's "Summerland." 

The feature filmmaking debut of the Olivier award-winning playwright, Swale reunites with the two leading ladies who starred in her London stage hit "Nell Gwynn," in the form of Arterton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw who, in 1920s set "Summerland" flashbacks, play two college friends who fall in love before they must ask themselves just what it is they want out of life.

With Alice thinking back on her relationship with Vera (Mbatha-Raw) as the last time she let someone into her heart before Frank, "Summerland" strikes a fine balance between not only dual timelines but a third one as well. The film is bookended by scenes that take place in 1975 where once again, Alice (this time played by Penelope Wilton) types away at her desk in Kent, reclusive as ever.

Still scaring the kids of the 1970s as much as she did those in the '40s who spread rumors around the island that the writer working on an academic treatise about mythology, folklore, and paganism is, in fact, a spell-casting witch, "Summerland" uses a fluid approach to time to spin a timeless yarn about friendship, tolerance, and love.

And while the decision to cast a woman of color in a period movie without ever calling attention to her race – which is treated as matter-of-factly as the lesbian love story at its center – is sure to earn the film legitimate criticism as being overly rosy or naive, I think it's a revolutionary act overall. 

Perfectly balanced in a film that feels at times like a classic fairy tale or bedtime story about the way that we deal with life at its unkindest, there's an old-fashioned safeness about the presentation of "Summerland" that reminds me of the humanistic warmth of TV's "Schitt's Creek." Just like "Schitt's Creek" has no time for any sort of prejudice (which is why it's so universally appealing to all), "Summerland" knows that bringing any overt racism or homophobia into this world would lessen its spell as a WWII coming-of-age fairy tale.

There's a crucial scene in the film where, after Frank guesses that the "someone" that his new guardian loved was a woman, Alice asks him if he would think it strange if a woman loved another woman. Considering her question carefully, he tells her no in earnest, adding that it isn't as strange as two married people who do not love each other.

A beautiful moment of tolerance and acceptance that makes Alice gasp in happiness, in this reaction, we see all of the pain and intolerance she's shut herself off and away from and Swale respects both the viewer and Arterton enough to know that we don't need everything spelled out to understand what Alice has gone through offscreen.

Boldly opting to do the same with race in the casting of Mbatha-Raw as the student who captures Alice's heart, while I grant that – just like with the lesbian romance – it's inauthentic to leave the issue of prejudice off the table for a Black woman in the 1920s, Swale trusts that we know precisely what kind of intolerance Vera would've faced back then.

For, what matters most in "Summerland" is the moral of the story (with an emphasis on "story") where people learn to come together during the hardest of times out of love since the biggest anomaly to young Frank is those who shouldn't be together but are.

From the light that pours onto the cliffs like the waves of the English Channel, while there's no mistaking "Summerland" for anything resembling reality, the film, which was gorgeously shot by "Stan & Ollie" cinematographer Laurie Rose is as dreamy and mythic as the stories of floating islands that Alice spends her time writing about. And while this pursuit has earned her character the rumored reputation as a witch, in the hands of Swale, Arterton, Mbatha-Raw, Bond, and company, all "Summerland" does is keep us happily bewitched from start to finish. 

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