Film review: Summerland charts forbidden romance in time of war and self-sacrifice

Gemma Arterton as Alice Lamb in Summerland
Damon Smith

TAKING its title from Norse mythology's notion of heaven as an astral plane where souls linger invisibly after they depart the mortal realm, Summerland is an elegantly constructed drama set on the Kent coast under threat from the Luftwaffe.

Olivier Award-winning playwright Jessica Swale makes her feature film directorial debut with a self-penned meditation on womanhood and female empowerment, broadening her canvas beyond the confines of the stage to ebb and flow between three timeframes: 1926, 1940 and 1975.

She reunites with Gemma Arterton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who both starred in her boisterous and bawdy 2016 play Nell Gwynn, to chart forbidden romance in a time of conflict and self-sacrifice, when two women in love was considered wickedness and a sin.

The lead actresses catalyse simmering on-screen chemistry and Swale reflects discriminatory behaviour towards the couple in gentle brush strokes without labouring the point.

Salty humour punctuates the measured introspection – an opening punchline about Help The Aged sets the tone magnificently – delivered with impeccable timing by an ensemble British cast that includes national treasures Sir Tom Courtenay and Dame Penelope Wilton.

Alice Lamb (Arterton) lives alone in a remote cottage in a close-knit community not far from the white cliffs of Dover, where anyone who dares to set themselves apart from the gossip-mongering crowd risks being labelled a Nazi spy.

She devotes her waking hours to investigating folklore, using rigorous science to dispel the existence of magic.

Alice's current fascination is the fata morgana optical illusion named after enchantress Morgan le Fay from Arthurian legend, which causes mirages of islands and cities to shimmer in the sky.

She is rudely dragged away from her thesis by the unexpected arrival of rosy-cheeked London Blitz evacuee Frank (Lucas Bond) as part of Operation Pied Piper.

Alice refuses to take the boy but local do-gooder Mrs Lawrence (Amanda Root) strikes a deal: "If you really can't find it in your heart to keep him, bring him to the school in a week and we'll make arrangements. A week, that's all."

Frank's sense of wonder, untainted by cynicism or grief, slowly penetrates Alice's prickly exterior and reawakens her sense of adventure. She dares to unlock bittersweet memories of studying history in Oxford alongside the last person to stake a claim to her wounded heart: Vera Wilbond (Mbatha-Raw).

Summerland makes splendid use of sun-dappled Kent locations as a backdrop to Alice's soul-searching. Still waters run deep in Arterton's purse-lipped curmudgeon, providing the actress with a rich and fulfilling character arc.

Young co-star Bond is an endearing foil. Plot machinations in the film's tear-drenched final third skirt perilously close to emotionally manipulative contrivance but Swale retains a firm grip on the rudder to chart a satisfying course back to calmer emotional waters.

SUMMERLAND (12A, 100 mins) Drama/War/Romance. Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lucas Bond, Sir Tom Courtenay, Dame Penelope Wilton, Amanda Root. Director: Jessica Swale

RATING: 7/10

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