Olivier-winning playwright Jessica Swale makes the leap from stage to film with her tender “Summerland.” This original World War II melodrama provides softness to a period in history that is anything but. Swale also reunites with her previous stage collaborator, Gemma Arterton. The talented thespian delivers a layered performance that carries deep sadness and a haughty air of Mary Poppins. Despite escaping the horror of the London bombings, Arterton’s Alice Lamb finds little peace living in countryside isolation. As destiny might have it, a new energy filled with spirit and joy barrels into her life. Through Alice’s personal journey, “Summerland” applies a warm salve that heals and restores faith in one’s own worth.
Alice Lamb suffered immense loss in her past but trudges onward by burying herself in work. She’s an essayist and researcher who authors the history behind popular folklore. Embracing the “reclusive writer” trope to safeguard herself from the world, Alice is an unmarried, property-owning, independent woman who is viewed as a local oddity. She has no need for friends or lollygagging children, and represses a secret so fiercely that it turns her jadedness into scorn.
Alice is interrupted one day by a woman in town in need of a favor. Come to find out, the favor is a mandated responsibility decreed by an unknown individual or organization. Alice is to act as guardian of an adolescent London boy named Frank (Lucas Bond) until the city is safe to return to. His mother is forced to watch over their home while his enlisted father is up in the skies combating Nazis. At first Alice exudes frosty reluctance to perform her guardianship duties, but soon warms to Frank. His curiosity about her work creates a mutual bond of respect, eventually leading the pair to ruminate about Earth’s mystical nature. According to the pagans, Alice instructs, their concept of heaven was referred to as “Summerland”: a spiritual realm that surrounds all living beings but cannot be accessed until death.
Just before Alice’s temporary custody of Frank expires, a hurricane of twists, lies, and tragedies hit the town of Kent. Alice and Frank find themselves at its epicenter, their drama escalating to unforeseen consequence. “Summerland” hits its stride once it leaves behind the mundane pleasantries of townsfolk introduction. However, Swale’s script is guilty of using the histrionic nature of kids to make situations take an egregious (and sometimes ridiculous) turn for the worst. Frank’s self-proclaimed “maverick” classmate, Edie (Dixie Egerickx), hinders Alice and Frank’s growing relationship by being a sanctimonious nuisance. Meanwhile, Tom Courtenay is delightful in his minor role as headmaster of the displaced childrens’ school, but even his character offers no guiding purpose.
Ultimately, “Summerland” is a story that blossoms the more we come to learn about our hermetic protagonist. Audiences are rewarded with an unexpected love story, a brief yet entrancing turn by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and a wonderful twist that will have viewers pirouette with glee. Although Swale refrains from theological sermonizing, she demonstrates that faith makes it possible to rise up and move on from the squalor of regret.