It’s 1975 and Alice Lamb, played by Penelope Wilton, is cussing at her typewriter and telling cute children to “bugger off.” When we cut back to the same typewriter some 30 years earlier, Alice, now played by Gemma Arterton, is again shouting at local kids and pointedly buying for herself the rationed chocolate bar another saucer-eyed moppet so desires. “Summerland,” the amiable debut feature from UK theater director and playwright Jessica Swale, works hard in its opening 10 minutes to convey the irascible Alice’s unlikability, and then even harder over the following 89 to unpick that impression. It’s all very good-natured but it does amount to a zero-sum game.
We’re on the outskirts of a small coastal village in Kent, in a picturesquely scuffed cottage in the dunes (even in disarray, the production design and costuming is scrupulously correct, which is perhaps why it never feels wholly lived-in). Alice (Arterton) lives here alone, writing “academic theses” on folklore and investigating the “island in the sky” phenomenon, a kind of Fata Morgana mirage which looks like a pillowy tract of land, often surmounted by a castle, hovering in midair above the ocean. The villagers, mostly disapproving matrons and the kind of make-do-and-mend housewives who seem to be busily marking time until the invention of Tupperware, are politely mistrustful of Alice and her independent ways; the children call her a witch. There is a war on, but it seems very far away.
As repeatedly established up front, Alice does not like children. Could there be a reason for that, or has she simply not met the right one yet? Swale’s well-intentioned, if timidly family-friendly screenplay is sensitive in its details but overstated in its broad outlines, and so opts for both explanations. Alice’s great love Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) left many years earlier because she wanted a “respectable” (i.e. heterosexual) relationship in order to have a family, so Alice’s scarred heart has cause to resent the little blighters. But when soulful yet cheerful evacuated London schoolboy Frank (Lucas Bond) is billeted on her, Alice’s frostiness is no match for his Boys Own enthusiasms, all model airplanes, pet rats and scuffed knees.
Swaddled in the seablown watercolors of DP Laurie Rose’s bright, fresh photography, the story has the well-meaning simplicity of a kids classic, as wholesome as “The Railway Children” given a very light dusting of progressive values. Though it is a love story, it’s between Alice and Frank, not Alice and Vera. And so Mbatha-Raw is badly underused, her flashback character reduced to a madcap 1920s-muse stereotype: a dazzling smile in a sparkly skullcap and drop-waisted dress, lit in amber nostalgia so glowy you could warm your hands by it.
Race is never once mentioned or even alluded to, and the depiction of same-sex passion tops out at a giggly afternoon swim and a very chastely shot kiss in which the mouths are artfully obscured. Further petted by Volker Bertelmann’s tasteful, old-fashioned score — classical with comical flourishes when the mood, never very heavy, needs lightening — “Summerland” could not possibly offend anyone, except those expecting a more forthright evocation of the joys and challenges of being a woman in love with another woman in early 20th century Britain.
Plotlines unfurl like ribbons on a maypole, only to get far too tidily bowed up at the end, after a final set of events — a (rather convenient) tragedy, a birthday, a revelation, a new girl at school, a secret disclosed, a runaway attempt and a bombing — that contrive all to happen in the space of one day. Life seldom feels so carefully mapped out, so it falls to Arterton (alongside a perfectly judged little turn from Tom Courtenay) to inject some sense of reality, and it’s a mark of how good she is that she nearly succeeds. There are flashes of vulnerability and rawness from her, often just a glance or a slowly crumpling expression, that connect us to Alice through the clutter of tchotchkes, and headscarves and sensible British briskness.
But she alone can’t jolt the film out of its impulse toward an almost fantastical neatness in which all good hearts will eventually be rewarded with good lives, and no one is to blame for anything, at least not for long. 1940s Kent is, in Swale’s imagination, such a kindly, karmically spick-and-span place that it’s not too fanciful to wonder if maybe Alice and Frank have actually been living all along in the enchanted, hovering faerie realm for which they’ve been scanning the horizon. “Summerland” is very pretty, and bursts with affection for its gently befuddled characters, but for all its eager charms, streaming like colored pennants from every turret, it’s a castle in the air.
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