Thursday 13 August 2020

Film Review: Summerland (dir. Swale, 2020)

Two Nell Gwynns for the price of one...? It's such a lovely touch that, making her film debut as writer director, the playwright Jessica Swale has brought together both of the actresses who played "pretty witty Nellie" in her 2015 play: Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who originated the role in the play at the Globe) and Gemma Arterton, who took over the part in the following year's West End transfer of the production.

In Summerland, which was to have been the Closing Night film of this year's BFI Flare, Mbatha-Raw and Arterton are cast as lovers: Vera and Alice, who meet at a classical concert in 1920s London and start a secret affair. Their love story is told in fragmentary broadstrokes flashbacks - Charlestoning, driving, snuggling, tearful separation - from Alice's perspective. These colourful scenes contrast with the character's situation 20 years later. Here, during wartime, the previously open, emotional and curious Alice has morphed into an abrupt, self-sufficient solitary who's holed up in a Kent cottage beavering away at a thesis on the subject of pagan myths.

Nursing hurt feelings, and with no time or inclination to suffer fools, the uningratiating Alice is variously viewed by the community (Tom Courtenay's headmaster and Sian Phillips' Grandma are among its representatives) as a curiosity, a witch or a spy. A cig between her lips and bashing away at her typewriter, Arterton sketches taciturn, tunnel-visioned writerly obsession broadly but amusingly in these brisk early scenes. But she gets more notes to play when Alice is reluctantly charged with the caretaking of an evacuee from London, 11 year old Frank, whose amenable demeanour and questions about Alice's past gradually prize open her tough exterior.

Summerland is at best functional in terms of technique (and at times shaky both literally and figuratively); it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to imagine it as a BBC TV drama circa 1987. That's not meant as a knock, though, and I found myself rooting for the film, even when its contrivances and melodramatic swerves started piling up.

Maybe part of that response was simply the joy of being back in a cinema for the first time in five months, but it also has to do with the intimate ambience that Swale creates - especially in the film's first half. Arterton and Lucas Bond, who is absolutely lovely as Frank, strike up a compelling rapport, leading to a deeply moving scene in which Alice's confession of her past love is not met with the expected response from the boy.

With its title suggesting a nod to another lesbian love story, Catherine Corsini's superb Summertime, Summerland also wins bonus points from me for evoking one of my all-time favourite films, Mary Agnes Donoghue's Paradise (1991), in its presentation of the effects of a sensitive child's presence on adults haunted by loss. (In addition Frank's friendship with the tough-talking tomboy Edie (Dixie Egerickx) also suggests the Willard (Elijah Wood) / Billie (Thora Birch) dynamic in Donoghue's film.) Summerland can't be said to sustain itself in the same way; the film starts sharp and ends soppy, and Mbatha-Raw's role is not as satisfyingly developed as Arterton's. But if the happy ending that Swale has contrived feels more than a bit like wish fulfilment, it also encapsulates the film's generous focus on the opening up of a shut-down, cynical character to the possibility of magic.

Summerland is in cinemas and available on Curzon Home Cinema.

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