Summerland offers a refreshingly modern take on a genre that usually is as diverse as various colors of freshly fallen snow — though it ignores riskier choices that were there for the taking.
Usually, English wartime films are as diverse as various colors of newly fallen snow. You have one white guy, with another older white guy, and throw in a couple of similar-looking older white women for good measure. Summerland doesn’t totally change that streak, but Jessica Swale’s film makes the effort. It takes a subtle twist that makes you ponder walls and boundaries and slightly questions the viewer’s perceptions enough that it is almost a refreshingly modern take — though it certainly isn’t groundbreaking and you could even call it tepid, familiar territory.
Sale, a British playwright, wrote the script and makes her directorial debut about an antagonistic local writer named Alice (Gemma Arterton) who lives in the seaside town of Kent. Their town takes in evacuees during the London Blitz, and her life is slightly turned upside-down by having to take a boy named Frank in. Of course, she slowly comes to realize what has been missing in her life since having Frank put in her care.
Swale’s film is a familiar territory of happily (but not really) single people who take in someone who makes them realize life is worth living when there is a cure for loneliness. You’ve seen these countless times like Kolya (Big Daddy, anyone) or Rain Man, but now it has the added bonus of a quaint English holiday feel, delightful accents included. It’s very standard fare and the highlight of the film is a subplot involving Alice’s long-lost love, Vera (an underused Gugu Mbatha-Raw). There is a revelation that many won’t see coming that is well done and timely, but you have to give yourself over to its absurdity. Some could argue it may be so far out left field it’s ill-advised but gives the story added heft and context that would be slightly stale otherwise.
The main reason to see the film is for Arterton, who finally has found a film role that utilizes her talents and not just her physical gifts. She plays a woman who is bitter, cranky, driven, brilliant, and resentful that is not at all likable because of a past she can’t let go of—which is refreshing. She is perceived as an outcast by some, accepted by others, which back then was an excuse to harbor resentment against a strong, independent woman.
Summerland is the type of film many look for that thinks it is asking the hard questions without the actual effort. It has modern themes of sexual orientation, the meaning of family, and love being blind in matters of gender and race. The problem with that is the argument can be made that it feels remarkably outdated considering the times we have lived through the last six months. Still, as a movie set in the 1940s that takes on current issues, it works, just not as well as it could have with riskier choices that were left for the taking.