Movie review: Summerland

(image courtesy IMP awards)

If you’ve been paying attention, and really the business of being alive pretty demands it in one form or another, it won’t have escaped your attention that life is a big fan of unfinished moments.

We, however, not so much; human beings are made for neat and tidy endings and happy-ever-afters and their absence can be a grating, grieving source of pain and loss such that while we might appear to be very much in the present, we are, in all the ways that count, stuck firmly in a cruelly truncated past that can never replicate itself nor find fulfilment in a resolution of lingering hurt pushed so deep down that we like to think we are done with it.

We are not though, and never can be, and one person who can testify to this with cranky gusto and virulent willingness to wear her loss in every word and every unhappy action is Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton in the 1940s, Penelope Wilton in the 1970s), a writer of academic theses, and not stories thank you very much, who spends her days at her small cottage in coastal Kent investigating the real world origins of many a folkloric tale and being firmly, unswervingly furious at the world around her.

In a clever sleight that seems to hint at the fact that Alice remains as marooned in loss in 1975 as she is in the middle of World War Two, Summerland, written and directed by Jessica Swale, and which draws its title from a mythic realm of the afterlife, opens with the writer hunched over her keyboard, tapping out words as if her life depends on it.

She appears to all intents and purposes to be as angry at life, the universe and damn near everything as she was decades earlier – she tells two little girls who come to her door collecting for a charity for seniors that “You know how you can help the aged? Well you can bugger off!” – and when we zip back to the height of the Blitz and the evacuation of many of London’s children to the supposedly safer realms of the countryside, we see Alice very much as she is now – embittered, lost in and devoted to her work and quite unwilling to engage with the people around her in any meaningful fashion.

(image via YouTube (c) Lionsgate)

That includes, of course, an evacuee named Frank (Lucas Bond) who is deposited most unceremoniously, in Alice’s eyes at least, by a local care worker who says “everyone must do their part” before abandoning the young boy, clutching his suitcase and clearly unhappy to be there, to a fate that many of Alice’s fellow villagers believe is one worse than death.

Alice, quite set in her ways, even in her early-to-mid-thirties barely engages with Frank at first, preferring her research into Fata Morgana, her typewriter and her writing to feeding him, amusing him and even telling him where the local school, whose principal is played with awkward wit and caring sincerity by the great Tom Courtenay, might be located.

At this point, you might be tempted to think you know exactly where Summerland, awash in the oil painting worthy glories of the beautiful English countryside by cinematographer Laurie Rose (one sunset scene in particular is lusciously evocative beyond belief) and while in some respects you would be right – the two do bond and good things happen as a result, largely thanks to frank’s irrepressibly garrulous outlook – in others you would be profoundly and thankfully wrong.

For Summerland is a film that might inhabit a well-worn, been-there-done-that body but which delves far deeper into the broken days of bitter regret and painful loss than you might be expecting.

For all its glistening beauty and days of happy, rambling contentment suggested by the isolated, hide-from-the-world cottage and the pretty driftwood-strewn beaches, the film inhabits a far darker and more regretful place than appearances suggest.

Alice is angry certainly, that much is certain, and is far from the loving, nurturing figure Frank needs, and will need even more when news that is quite decisively pointed towards in the trailer comes to the fore, but why? What horrible event in life pushed her from a youthful woman ready for love to someone for whom the very idea of embracing another human being, either physically or hypothetically, seems anathema?

(image via YouTube (c) Lionsgate)

In a series of giddy, laugh-heavy flashbacks, we discover, and this is well documented in the trailer so should come as no real surprise so the full scope of its emotional import most certainly does, that Alice was once happily, zestfully, fully romantically alive, in love with Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a relationship doomed to perish on the rocks of peoples’ imagined bigotry and homophobia but which at the time feels like an exciting, thrilling world full of endless hope and possibility.

Clearly something goes wrong, though what we do not discover until later in a plot twist that sets up an even more profoundly resonant one later on in the film, but whatever transpires Alice is alone in early 1940s’ Kent until Frank, quite against the odds and her wishes lobs up at the door.

Summerland is an achingly beautiful, exquisitely well-told story of the past crashing headlong into the present and how love, endless, malleable, possible love, can wholly shape and reshape your life in ways that can both hurt and heal.

While on paper the storyline may seem hopelessly twee with its Anne of Green Gables-esque redemption of a sad and broken heart, it is far more substantial a creation than that and will leave you moved in ways so deep and authentic that you will laugh at yourself for thinking it could be as light and flim-flamy as first appearances suggested.

That is, of course, when you are not laughing at the joyful, mutually-sustaining bond that develops between Alice and Frank, one which bring Alice alive again in ways she could never have imagined, or crying your heart out in gasping sobs at how so much happiness can nevertheless be accompanied by so much devastating sorrow.

Summerland, which draws upon a mythology where the dead reach into the living realms in ways mystical and impossible to make their presence known and send messages to those they love, is a film rich in the emotional complexities and messy unfinished business of life, so full of emotion that you can’t help but sink into beautifully sculpted and insightful form convinced that here is a piece of cinema that gets life in all its bewildering and fulfilling and maddeningly awful forms.

You can’t watch this film, which offers the diversions of the English countryside and the bucolic idylls of lives defined and rediscovered, without being drawn completely and overwhelmingly into its richly-observed and emotionally resonant story, without falling for its characters and wishing them well (yes, even Alice who is, it won’t surprise you, far more than what she unhappily appears) and without realising once again that while life seems wholly adept at taking away, and with ferocious disregard for our wellbeing, it can also give generously, and when it does, we are transformed in ways that remake and renew us and leave us changed in ways that belie everything that came before.

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