Being a kid in the Second World War was a real thing, you know. My mate Stan lived under occupation. He was ten when the Nazis pitched up and took over his island. He missed evacuated friends, easy food in his belly, and any sense of safety. Then a generation of war films ignored his story and went for the heroics – and quite right too. The soldiers, sailors and airmen had earnt their moment in the sun. But stories changed and different lenses made for different stories…
Of course, Stan’s gone now. And all the invaders, family and friends around him. So the stories we tell are closer to histories, occasionally told with freshness and redemptive tones.
And that’s what old Jack here found in this one. Something gorgeous, different, welcome and calling us all to the Summerland (2020).
It flickers backwards and forwards in time, catching today, the war and the 1920s, as we learn the life of Alice. She is a writer, debunking or perhaps proving myths and legends, banging out her theories on a typewriter no matter the decade. Today she is Penelope Wilton, grumpy at kids and a glorious movie bookend. Yesterday, and for the meat of the film, she is Gemma Arterton. And terrific.
The wartime story is told in beautiful cinematography. From the house, to the sea, to the wartime folk and the kids evacuated to their care, the colours are rich and the performances so touchingly British you want to hug the lot of them.
Alice has a boy dumped on her, Frank (Lucas Bond). This is beyond annoying, given she is treated with mistrust by everyone and can’t stand children. Frank and Alice circle one another in an unequal power balance, a week passing with the further annoyance of growing empathy. She succeeds in palming him off to another family, but changes her mind. It’s a telling moment.
But there’s another story going on: why is Alice so damned grumpilicious? She remembers a love affair amongst the flappers, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw as flashback-stunning Vera. First love. All careful angles and presumed incongruence of its time, the love is lovely. Old Jack here felt the angst when Vera dumps Alice (to have kids…ow) and loneliness fills the space.
And then bad stuff happens to Frank’s family. And Alice keeps a secret. And boom go the emotions that were floating above them, like the Fata Morgana mirage. Alternatively, like the Cloud City in The Shat’s days of Star Trek. You choose. The metaphor, when it arrives, is touching.
Summerland is a properly heartening film. The shape of the thing is perfect for its story, and the performances play out warmly no matter the character. Tom Courtenay gives solid Britisher, Villager and teacher in one, Lucas Bond meets Arterton with undercutting youth and openness, whilst Dixie Egerickx is a star born. Her Edie, a self-reflective observer of social abnormalities and a curious mix of certainty and fragility, is like wisdom on a blank canvas, waiting to paint herself true. Everyone wants a grandkid like Edie. In a more ethereal world, Mbatha-Raw brings instant movie star love.
And Arterton deserves prizes. Her turn as eccentric, isolated, human, humane and loving Alice leads the story with easy grace. Old Jack here adored the rage, flicks in humour, self-owned nature, and charging intellect of Alice. Another part of my brain was thinking – aha – we have a big screen Doctor Who. Give Arterton a police box, a metal enemy and a widescreen sonic and there’ll be many happy kids on the planet.
Too many words. Apologies. Bravo Jessica Swale, writer and director.
Get your offspring to chuck a copy through your window for Christmas. Wipe it down with anti-bac towelettes, gather those you trust ’til the vaccine arrives, and let Summerland take you off to an all-new, very old, very British place.
My mate Stan would have loved it.