Whilst 2020 will no doubt go down as one of the most unpredictable years in cinema history, something that you can always seem to rely on is at least one or two new Second World War British period drama/comedy/romances to wash down a Sunday evening with. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that these efforts very rarely transpire to be my favourites, but there is something in the familiarity and comfort viewing that always makes me willing to give them a shot. Next in line for perusal was Jessica Swale’s Summerland, a candidate that seemed like it might have something a little different to offer.
Set in coastal Kent in the 1940s, Summerland tells the story of Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton), a reclusive writer whose life is interrupted when she is forced to take in Frank (Lucas Bond), a young evacuee from London. With her routine and solitude disturbed, the audience sees Alice slowly begin to warm to Frank, at the same time as a series of flashbacks reveal a long lost lesbian romance, the experience and heartbreak of which are still very much at the centre of her life.
There is a lot that I liked about Summerland, but there is also a lot that doesn’t quite work as well. In terms of adding something a little bit new to the WWII period drama vibes, there’s nothing like an LGBT angle to grab my attention. In truth, though, much of what I personally found most interesting within the narrative turned out to be the least explored. At the forefront of the story is the developing relationship between Alice and Frank, but in my opinion the far more interesting elements of plot are the ones merely glimpsed at in the brief flashbacks. It’s a very bold decision to have Gemma Arterton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw strike such a winning romantic chemistry and then only have that be a side element of the picture!
As for the rest of the film in a more broad sense, Summerland follows very much in the tone and vibes of the dozens and dozens of recent WWII period dramas that have preceded it. From shared cast members to a shared aesthetic style, these movies really do start to meld into one sort of cozy wartime universe. You know that nothing is ever going to get too violent, or too sexy, or too anything to be honest. The genre in general always verges on the too twee side for me, but I do appreciate the less ‘traditional’ romance at the heart of the narrative. Think The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society meets Tell It To The Bees and you might have some idea of what you are in for.
Gemma Arterton is one of those actresses that I will literally watch in anything, and I might be biased, but she’s wonderful in the role of Alice Lamb. Hot off the heels of another fantastic performance in 2018’s Vita & Virginia, Arterton is putting together a nice little catalogue of LGBT period performances, and I’m loving the choices that she’s making. As Alice in particular, Arterton runs the full range of emotion from guarded restraint to blossoming maternal instinct to deeper seated pain from her past. The character is a really interesting one, and thankfully she has a suitably interesting actress to portray her.
Arterton’s scene partner for the majority of the film is Lucas Bond as young evacuee Frank. I’m less enthusiastic about Bond’s performance, there is something sort of awkward in his delivery, as though you can feel him reading the lines rather than fully embodying the character. His chemistry with Arterton does improve as the film progresses, however, and by the time of the more climactic scenes in the final third, they do produce some good work together.
Who I wish would have been Arterton’s scene partner for the majority of the film is Gugu Mbatha-Raw. As Vera, her appearances in flashbacks (and a little more) are all too brief, and it really does feel like there is a whole other movie to be made about the parts of that particular romance that the audience weren’t let in on. Ultimately, I think I might have preferred to watch that movie instead.
Overall, Summerland is a perfectly serviceable period drama that covers a lot of the familiar Second World War territory, with the all important added factor of a same sex love story to provide that somewhat different spark. I wasn’t bored at any point, I stayed engaged throughout, and although I did anticipate the reveals of the final third, there was still an enjoyable amount of catharsis to be had in the unfolding of certain events. Not the best of its kind, but certainly not the worst.