In times when there’s no knowing if that van over there is civilian owned or federally rented and demonic “relations” is how one contracts COVID-19, whoever chooses to totally disconnect from society might just be a genius. Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton), then, is one — binding herself to the typewriter in the cottage by Cuckmere Haven (also seen in the writerly Atonement), always ready to deliver a verbal beating if someone comes knocking when she’s drafting. And who cares if the turmoil in her universe stems from World War II and not 2020 in general, as if there’s that much of a difference between the two timelines!
But director Jessica Swale, in her feature debut after four credited shorts — among them the funny-but-sobering Leading Lady Parts, also featuring Arterton, doesn’t dwell on despair. Aesthetically, Summerland is bursting with colors from the fabrics Claire Finlay assembled, the sunny designs Christina Moore devised and the rustic sets Philippa Hart revived. Hues also come in the twinkling and swinging of Volker Bertelmann’s score. Populace-wise, Swale, who’s also behind the screenplay, sees a trove of zappy laughs in the townspeople’s observations of Alice as a witch (Allies v. Nazis may have nothing on the spinster v. everyone else!), or else warming notes in Alice’s attempts to be motherly with the young Blitz evacuee Frank (Lucas Bond). It won’t take long for the focus to become the latter, as all the merries and sorrows with the kid will let Alice uncover the pagan heaven of Summerland she’s been writing about — it’s only visible with enough disturbance, she said — and prevent the fading of the love she once shared with the walking summerland named Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
In one package, Summerland tackles things personal, familial and interpersonal, making it both more comprehensive than most tales of its type and more susceptible to a case of juggling too many narrative plates at once. No such trouble for Swale, thankfully, as each kind of relationship receives attention when it matters most; where she falters is giving the aforementioned inclusivity the weight it could have had. None of Alice and her central acquaintances — herself, Frank and Vera — shines in the manner you wish they would (and you know they could!) because Swale doesn’t explore them at the depth that can make them stand out as a whole and give their distinctive beats the chance to sing-then-linger. If not from the glossing over or the use of dramatic conveniences, the culprit is the rapid-fire quality that editor Tania Reddin gives to the flow, which more often than not caps the atmosphere before it becomes most flavorful, the drama before it reaches full bloom. Doesn’t matter which relationship is in the spotlight, doesn’t matter the timeline. Swear: Without the sheer force of Arterton’s performance, Summerland and all that it wants to say will have the weight of a castle in the sky. She gives the placement of free-thinking women (through her affinity for writing), sense of motherhood (being caretaker to a miniature stranger) and the outcomes of defying conventions (loving Vera, a Black woman) enough force to make waves — light and lonely, considering filmmaking is a team effort, but they’re waves nonetheless.
For most, Summerlandis a fantasy that should remain so and not an invitation for optimism on days most dire. One is certainly glad that director-writer Swale isn’t like most people: Her Summerland is a vivid meadow where salve for life’s ills is aplenty, all of which under the supervision of Arterton at her most captivating. The grounds could have been planted with more features and the tour would have benefited from a semblance of patience, but ultimately this is a first lap full of promise that will have you wondering whether Arterton and Swale can team up again soon.