Gemma Arterton (Their Finest, Vita & Virginia) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle, Black Mirror, Misbehaviour) deliver stunning lead performances in Summerland, a charming new war-time drama and admittedly contrived tear-jerker. Written and directed by Jessica Swale (Leading Lady Parts), the film is a feature debut for the Olivier-nominated playwright who, on this evidence, has made a successful transition from stage to screen.
In the mid-1970s, reclusive writer Alice Lamb (played by Penelope Wilton) lives by the seaside in a small Kent town where she is routinely harangued by local children who believe her to be a witch. We are then transported back to the 1940s and WWII; the younger Alice (Arterton) lives at the same house in the same coastal town and is seemingly nursing a broken heart.
As part of the war effort, Alice is one day entrusted with the care of Frank (Lucas Bond), a bright and enthusiastic young boy who’s been sent by his parents away from London as part of a national drive to find a safe environment for children. Though Alice isn’t feeling in a charitable mood, she reluctantly lets him stay till another family claims him. Gradually, as Alice reflects on her former lost love Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), she finds a kindred spirit in the young boy as they bond over their love for science and ancient myths.
With its twee soft-focus view of England at war, Summerland could have easily fallen into the same old “grey pound” trap of misty-eyed sentimentalism, but Swale and director of photography Laurie Rose have managed a real coup here. Swale does a fantastic job in subverting a potentially workaday narrative into something far more complex, and this is where her genius really lies.
With gorgeously-lit coastal scenery, and beautifully understated performances courtesy of Arterton and Mbatha-Raw, Summerland manages to make something rather special out of an otherwise pedestrian screenplay.
Having produced and starred in Swale’s critically acclaimed 2018 BBC4 short Leading Lady Parts – a production inspired by the Time’s Up movement – it’s clear that Arterton and Swale have created a perfectly symbiotic working relationship and it really shows. For her part, Mbatha-Raw, as ever, does what comes to her naturally. She offers Vera as a free-spirited, sparkling and almost ethereal being in a truly impressive scene-stealing turn.
Swale once more cements herself as someone who isn’t afraid of stepping out of their comfort zone. She presents a gorgeously acted, smart and genuinely engaging drama full of surprising quirks and intricate signifiers. Summerland may not be likely to reinvent the drama genre, but it still manages to normalise LGBTQ+ narratives in the way it lays out this heartfelt gay love story.
- Director: Jessica Swale
- Starring: Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton
- Release date: July 31