“Summerland” is a diverting period piece that puts a queer spin on the familiar tale of a misanthropic adult charmed by a plucky young child. This heartwarming British period drama, written and directed by Jessica Swale, is available on demand starting July 31.
The bulk of the film takes place during the war years as Alice (Gemma Arterton) is trying to write her academic thesis on folklore. Alice has a reputation in town for being mean — watch her tease a young girl with a bar of chocolate at the local store — and the kids all think she’s a witch.
When a local woman coordinating the efforts to place evacuee children in homes with adults turns up on Alice’s doorstep, Alice thinks it is a mistake. She reluctantly agrees to keep Frank (Toby Osmond) for a week while they find another residence for him.
Alice is, unsurprisingly, not given to coddling Frank upon his arrival. Oddly, however, Frank comes to appreciate her “tough love” approach. The sensitive young boy also befriends Edie (Dixie Egerickx), a tomboy at school who declares herself to be independent.
As Alice spends more time with Frank, caring for him when he scrapes his knee or answering his questions about why she is not married, Alice reflects back on her relationship years earlier with Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Alice’s memories of Vera are triggered by Frank’s presence and questions, and through the recollections her feelings slowly start to soften.
The bond between ersatz mother and child is perhaps cemented when Frank accompanies Alice on a trip to Ramsgate for her research. She tells him about the pagan heaven known as “Summerland,” and he sees what she describes — a castle in the clouds. Alice, who appreciates science over magic, does not believe Frank at first. However, once she realizes that Frank saw a reflection in the sky, she comes to trust him. She later reveals to him that she once loved a woman, and even kissed her. He is accepting of this fact and keeps her secret.
Thankfully, Swale does not use this tender moment to push “Summerland” into warm and fuzzy territory. Instead, Alice silently recalls why her relationship with Vera, which emboldened her, ended unhappily. Her emotions have some influence on her relationship with Frank.
The film’s second half pivots on the death of Frank’s father, a pilot in the war. Alice wants to wait to tell Frank the sad news because she does not want to ruin his birthday. She implores Edie, who knows the truth, not breathe a word to Frank, but the young girl is provoked and blurts it out at an inappropriate moment. Frank, feeling betrayed and unloved, heads to London, alone, in search of his mother. Meanwhile, Alice makes an unexpected discovery. When the pair inevitably reunite, they find solace as they each grieve the loss of a loved one.
“Summerland” tugs at the heart because these two lonely souls are starved for affection. Alice may have closed herself off from others, but she apparently does not want the young Frank to suffer the same fate. She sees a form of her younger self in his curiosity and openness, and this melts her tough exterior, reminding her of the power of love and friendship. The message is hardly groundbreaking, but Swale makes it cozy, not cloying.
If Alice is as rough as the landscape she inhabits — all rocky cliffs fronting dangerous waters — Frank is the balsa wood airplane that soars off the shore. He is the castle in the clouds, full of light and hope. Frank’s thawing impact on Alice is, of course, assured, but that does not make the melodrama any less affecting. As she counts down the days until he leaves her, viewers know Alice will not give Frank up for anything.
“Summerland” allows viewers to experience the emotional connection and that is why its clichés and contrivances are forgivable. This is largely because Gemma Arteton is appealing as Alice, an obstinate woman who is determined to get by on her own — and on her own terms. She excels at portraying Alice’s crustiness, but the scenes of Alice and Vera being romantic convey the passions beneath Alice’s iciness. Arterton is well matched by Toby Osmond who plays the precocious Frank with a minimum of sentiment. He is a bright, engaging actor.
In support, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is lovely in the flashback scenes, but viewers might wish the relationship between Alice and Vera was a bit more prominent.
Ultimately, Swale’s film is not unlike the meals Alice serves Frank. She gives him an uncooked egg, a hard roll, and a paltry slice of ham on his first night. Eventually they enjoy a rasher of bacon, chips, and chocolate. “Summerland” is satisfying like comfort food.