2020 is far from perfect. The world seems to be going in always more chaotic directions, with no sign of ever slowing down. And in a time in which the thoughts of enchanting strolls on the beach seem like a fairy tale of old, Jessica Swale’s first full-length film, Summerland, is a much-needed reminder that more whimsical days may be around the corner.
The film is set amidst World War II and spins the tale of Alice (Gemma Arterton, “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters”), an introverted writer who resides in an enchanting seaside cottage in Kent. Tall, bold, and outspoken, Alice is often the victim of harassment among her neighbors for her quirky sensibilities. But when the London Blitz results in children being sent to temporary lodging, Alice’s life suddenly shifts. Now with Frank (Lucas Bond, “Slumber”) under her watch, Alice has more to worry about than just herself and her various projects. And when the memories of her past seep through, things get even more complicated.
Now perhaps this is my quarantine-mood talking, but I find myself in a desperate search for comfort. And when a film crosses my path that checkmarks my aesthetic dreams from a visual and Jane Austin-narrative blanket standpoint, it’s hard for me to take my eyes off. All of these descriptors are to say that Summerland is indeed my kind of movie. One that tugs on a particular set of non-cynical heartstrings, with a pinch of delicious fashion and sights for added enjoyment. For much like the myths that inspire Alice’s work, I love a good story — especially those I wish could come true regardless of the decade they take place in.
Of course, there will be viewers that come into the world of Summerland looking for the cracks within its tale. They’ll shout out its unbelievable nature, especially when the obvious twist comes to the forefront. But perhaps the film isn’t meant to be like the books that Alice is trying to write, in which she looks for logic to explain the most magical of folklore. Instead, Summerland exists as a fantasy — one that is distinctly missing from a film genre that desperately needs it now more than ever.
The film begins at the ending, where audiences first meet Alice in her 1970’s form (Penelope Wilton, “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”). With her hair up in the most rustling of hair-dos, headband off-center, she cusses off a pair of children at her door. This interaction sets the stage for audiences to hate the typical heartless old spinster. But as we see the clock turn backward, we learn of how Alice gained this reputation. And though such discoveries might not have you exactly rooting for this off-kilter individual, it’s hard to ignore Arterton’s fantastic work to make you see the heart underneath Alice’s hardened shell.
The same can be said for everyone else in the cast, who all provide equal parts charm and sincerity. Lucas Bond gives Frank a wholesome believable nature, one that evokes nostalgic protagonists — a little bit of Jim Hawkins meets Harry Potter. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Motherless Brooklyn”) is a supportive light at the end of the tunnel. At the same time, Tom Courtenay (“King of Thieves”) and Siân Phillips (“Dream Horse”), as Alice’s various neighbors, provide a balanced of perfectly cartoonish, yet earnest, ridicule. Together, they all offer a glimpse into the emotional, multi-dimensional rabbit hole that Alice must climb out of.
This said hole mostly relates to two central, crucial bonds — the one Alice is building with her new pre-teen roommate, while the other is a forgotten romance. It starts with a chance meeting involving an eccentric young beauty named Vera (Mbatha-Raw) that eventually evolves to the closest and most passionate of love affairs. But this is occurring in a time that modern viewers know isn’t safe for two women to hold hands in. And though Alice wants to live within her own fairy tale, in which her feelings for Vera will win against all odds, we know that isn’t easy to achieve.
But perhaps, in the grander scheme of things, that doesn’t matter. Because in a media space in which Hallmark has yet to make a queer Christmas movie, perhaps the LGBTQ+ community deserves something as earnest and heartfelt as Summerland and has for a long time. For Alice, in many ways, is the most cottagecore of Scrooge’s Instagram could ask for, and the ghosts of the past do indeed haunt her. Frank could be this film’s Tiny Tim, and you could fill the pages from there. And even if the story is set during the summer, without a flake of snow in sight, it likely (much like it did for me) will make you want to grab a sweater. And what is so wrong with any of that?
From my heart-on-sleeve perspective, there isn’t any. Sure, maybe the sort of punishments a character who misleads another don’t happen in the most detailed of ways. And yes, maybe it would take more than a child with a vivid imagination to change the mind of a heartbroken woman. But with Laurie Rose’s (“Overlord”) beautiful cinematography, along with Swale’s eye for capturing tenderness through every possible means, those easy flaws can be dashed to the side.
Because this is indeed a movie where a woman is in search of finding floating castles. Where she eventually captures the mind of her new young friend, changing the way he sees his war-torn world. And more importantly, the definition of what is a family in the midst of uncertainty is given a much more refreshing, and heartwarming, definition. And though it might be like a typical tale to a more seasoned-critic, perhaps these are the kinds of stories we adults need to revisit.
Maybe 2020 is the year we temporarily let go of looking for realism within every frame. Maybe it is a time where we learn to embrace the corny, the melodramatic, and genuine emotions a bit more than usual. Because if the 40s allowed audiences to escape into the haunting romance of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” along with the 80s giving way to George R.R. Martin working on the ever earnest “Beauty and the Beast” TV series, then we can enjoy something as tear-filled and cozy as Summerland.