Playwright-come-director Jessica Swale expertly makes her directing debut in Summerland, instantaneously breaking the heart and elevating the soul with her contemporary, theatre-inspired take on 1940s love.
I’ll admit, coming into this film, I had low expectations because let’s face it, the British adore their aggressively nostalgic wartime romances. With their mandated backdrops of the rolling hills and valleys of ‘God’s own Country’, these films provide aesthetic relief from the dirty, unpleasant realities of the war. They’re always about some pretty little town woman, effortlessly swayed by a big, burly soldier whose fight for ‘King and Country’ seemingly redeems his mediocre personality and over-styled hair.
In my exasperation with such ardent cheesiness, I immediately took the poster woman’s far-off, longing gaze and the synopsis of a young evacuee who teachers her to love again as proof of this unsolicited love epic. But Gemma Arterton is a goddess, so I persevered.
Imagine my surprise when, having established the lonely, bad temper of our soon-to-be-wooed spinster, the inevitable knock at the door revealed Frank to be a child (*cue me checking myself after severely wrecking myself*). Commence the rollercoaster of surprises, nuances and pure brilliance that this film had to offer.
In the 1940s dream-like narrative of Summerland, Gemma Arterton plays Alice Lamb, whose reclusive researching of supernatural folk legends and hatred of the village children sees her labelled a witch. One day she is unexpectedly disturbed by Frank (played by Lucas Bond), an evacuee from London whom she is tasked with caring for. Repulsed, she refuses, but eventually accepts him on the provision that he is immediately rehomed. Soon Frank’s infectious wonder, accepting nature and optimism inspires Alice to revisit painful memories of unrequited love and loss, bringing the pair closer together.
This movie honestly shocked me. Expecting such a dozy rom-com-esque nightmare, its progressive treatment of contemporary themes and subversion of traditional genres made this film exciting and unpredictable. Swale’s theatrical credits undoubtedly influenced the pace and attention to detail in Summerland, to the extent that one could imagine this piece arriving fresh from the proscenium arches of the West End. The dialogue could have easily stood alone from the film’s technical elements; its lightning-fast, energised conversations punctuated with beautifully delayed moments of raw emotion and vulnerability, and clever quips alleviating the otherwise intense emotionality.
Alongside the unlikely friendship of Frank and Alice, Swale gently constructs a space to explore Alice’s relationship with Vera, a young female writer. Despite the swiftness of their relationship, represented in Alice’s recurrent flashbacks, their moments of intimacy are made clear and important as Swale slows the paces of these scenes to highlight their significance to Alice and the plot. By subverting a heteronormative-saturated genre with an LGBTQ+ narrative, and especially one that is treated with respect, pride and dignity, rather than shame or criminality, Summerland offers a crucial representation which honours the significance of such stories in people’s lives.
Importantly, Summerland also starkly addresses the tragedy of war, from the unconventional, yet surprisingly coherent perspective of a child. In a difficult moment of unwanted responsibility, Alice is tasked with informing Frank that his father, a pilot, has been killed. Grappling with the death of her own father, also in her youth, Alice and Frank share the grief and pain of their fathers’ deaths together. Frank’s raw yet stoic emotionality provides an immediately tangible grief, while Alice’s anxiety over her own past demonstrates how such grief transcends the tidy boundaries of childhood.
Throughout the film, the concept of the afterlife is conceived as a place called “Summerland”. This is a reality laid over the ‘real world’, through which the dead can reach out and communicate with the living. It is intangibly entwined with the world of the living, manifesting in castles visible in the sky, and mountain mirages that rise about their realistic, rocky counterparts, so that this titular after-world is inseparable from Alice and Frank’s realities.
As the story progresses, Summerland comes to increasingly represent the threat of death that pervades every element of this wartime world and hangs over every character’s life, reminding the viewer of the ever-present, inescapable horrors of violence. However, Swale expertly subverts the inherent ugliness of this threat through her incorporation of idyllic Kent coastlines and sparkling, sunlit ocean scenes, onto which she transposes the melancholic tranquillity of ‘Summerland’. Seriously, if you watch this film for nothing else, Summerland is worth viewing just for its breathtaking capture of the British landscapes! Its bleach-white cliffs and pebble beaches are a gorgeous sight which, although being slightly different from the flattened, sandy stretches of Aussie coastlines, offers a serene and movingly nostalgic memory that I’m sure most Aussie viewers can relate to.
Epitomised in the words of the woman who introduced the film at Raine Cinemas—“If you don’t cry, what’s wrong with you?”—this movie will leave you with stains on your cheeks and lead in your heart. It is nevertheless an indescribable experience that you have to witness, trust me.
The 2020 British Film Festival will be screened at four Perth locations from the 10th to the 29th of November. More information is available at Britishfilmfestival.com.au.