We get our first glimpse of Alice Lamb as an older woman in 1975 pounding away on her Royal typewriter before rudely shooing neighborhood kids away from her door. We then flashback thirty-something years to WWII, and find a younger version of Alice still clacking away on the same Royal and still chasing off the local youngsters. Segments with the older Alice bookend the film, but most of our time is spent with the younger Alice in Summerland, the first feature film from writer-director Jessica Swale, a renowned playwright.
Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace, 2008) plays younger Alice, a writer, and researcher based in the countryside of Kent. She’s not just a reclusive writer, but we learn she’s holding a grudge against the world ever since she was denied true love while at University. The townspeople view her as antisocial, while the local kids refer to her as a witch. When the local school Headmaster (Tom Courtenay) refers to her “stories,” she quickly corrects him to “Academic Thesis.” It’s no wonder she’s earned the label, “Beast on the Beach.”
During the German Blitz, many London families sent their kids to live with families in the much safer countryside. One day, an official brings young Frank (Lucas Bond) to Alice’s home for temporary guardianship, and she responds “I don’t want him”…yes, in front of the boy. Frank’s father is fighting during the war, while his mother is working with the ministry. Of course, we know that Alice’s iceberg of a heart will eventually thaw, and it begins when Frank expresses an interest in the legends and folklore at the center of Alice’s research. Of particular interest to Frank is Summerland, the pagan term for the afterlife, and the corresponding images.
As an evacuee, Frank is a bit of an outsider at school, but he makes friends with Edie (Dixie Egerickx, The Little Stranger, 2018), a spirited young lady who, like most kids, doesn’t much trust Alice. It’s interesting to watch as Frank and Alice reluctantly grow closer, but this is wartime, and joy is sometimes difficult to come by. However, this odd couple seem good for a life lesson to the others.
Penelope Wilton plays the older Alice and Gugu Mbatha-Raw lights up the screen in only a few scenes, and it’s Ms. Arterton’s best work since Tamara Drewe (2010). Young Alice experiences visions and memories of a past life not meant to be. The twist is quite obvious, yet no less effective. Ms. Swale’s film is sentimental and melodramatic, and probably employs a few too many clichés. Yet, although predictable, it does offer hope; and given the times we are in, a hopeful message is quite welcome – as is the reminder that “stories have to come from somewhere.”
Summerland is being released by IFC Films.