Summerland review: a spirited magical-realist drama

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Gemma Arterton’s latest period drama is a picture-postcard of a film on paper, but far more in spirit – here’s our review of Summerland.

The postcard-worthy quad poster for Summerland features sunny portraits of Gemma Arterton and a comfortably familiar supporting cast against the picturesque Kent coastline, all topped with the quite reductive tagline, “Love. Magic. Hope.” As one of the first features to play in UK cinemas without a day-and-date VOD release since March, the film has been ideally placed to welcome back those who are ready, but the marketing feels like an oddly suitable front for a WW2-era drama that’s as guarded as its protagonist.

Arterton plays Alice Lamb, an academic who lives in a cottage on the beach and writes about natural and scientific explanations for superstition and mythology. More than just a debunker, she wants to understand these phenomena rather than dismiss them. Coupled with her reclusive status, the nature of Alice’s work has garnered her a reputation as either a witch or a Nazi spy in the not-so-urban legends of the local children and their parents.

Concentrating mostly on herself and her work, she doesn’t realise that she’s about to be landed with Frank, (Lucas Bond) a young evacuee from London whose father is in the Air Force. She reluctantly lets him in on her latest fascination – the mirage of a floating island glimpsed just off the coast – but the sudden responsibility sits uneasily with someone accustomed to living independently of everyone else.

It may sound like the kind of Sunday-afternoon English heritage drama that has proven so popular at the box office in recent years, but happily, Summerland has a more beguiling quality. Playwright and theatre director Jessica Swale makes her feature-film debut here and together with Ben Wheatley’s regular cinematographer Laurie Rose, she creates a mesmerising, sun-dappled atmosphere in which the story plays out.

Beyond its magical-realist tone, the promised “magic” extends to a deftness in guarding its secrets until the story arrives. This includes the film’s various sojourns to the past and future, starting with a bookend scene that shows an older Alice (Penelope Wilton) grumpily writing the story, and continuing in a series of charming and then heart-breaking flashbacks to the 1920s, where a happier, flappier Alice falls for Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). These interjections ebb and flow throughout the story, gently buffeting us towards each new revelation rather than crashing into the plot.

In the lead role, Arterton is radiant as usual – this is sunnier fare than her previous Home Front drama, the brilliant Their Finest, but she grumps spectacularly through what at first appears to be the setup for an update on Bedknobs & Broomsticks, while Bond makes the ideal foil to her begrudging guardian. That said, it’s young Dixie Egerickx who steals the show as Frank’s self-described “maverick” feminist classmate Edie.

On another note, it’s an inspired spot of casting to place Wilton and Arterton as the same character at different ages – they’re often in the same casting pool for this sort of British film, but we wouldn’t have made the connection until now, where there’s a lovely, uncanny continuity across the film and its bookends. Back in the 1940s, Tom Courtenay, Siân Phillips, and Jessica Gunning add some local colour to the proceedings as they rabbit (and occasionally meerkat) about the mysterious Miss Lamb.

The film falls down slightly when the different currents converge in the third act, and it does spill over into a brief passage of melodrama. Where the sentimentality of the payoffs is fully earned, but there’s a combination of contrivance and convenience that feels a little too easy. It still makes for a lovely day out, if you’re so inclined. Beautifully made and acted all round, Summerland is as warm and hopeful as its title suggests, but also much more enigmatic than you might expect.

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