When occasion calls, society expects people to pitch in for the greater good, but doing one’s part is a relative action. It could mean, for instance, wearing a mask in public and refraining from visiting pubs, pools or parties to halt the spread of a very transmissible disease with side effects ranging from stunted lung capacity to death. That’s a small ask. Taking a boy shepherded out of London during the Blitz into one’s home is a much more daunting ask by comparison, and it’s the ask posed to Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton) in Jessica Swale’s feature debut, Summerland.
Swale wraps a framing device around elder Alice (Penelope Wilton), introduced during a writing session so taxing on her concentration that she doesn’t hesitate thundering rude dismissals at neighborhood youths knocking on her door. Fun as it is to watch Wilton be a dick to children, Swale transitions immediately to Alice tapping away at the same old typewriter decades prior, similarly disinclined toward kids and yet helplessly, hopelessly entrusted with caring for Frank (Lucas Bond). His mom works for the ministry. His dad flies war planes. Being as the lad has nowhere else to go as the Nazis turn London to ash, Alice is given temporary custody, which suits neither her nor her fellow townsfolk. Alice, a loner by choice, has a reputation as something of a witch.
Summerland’s title shimmers with an implied warmth, so of course Frank thaws out Alice’s frozen heart over the course of the picture. He’s charming in ways that play to her character with surprising specificity: curious about the world, interested in her work as an academic, unexpectedly open-minded in a time and place where open-mindedness is discouraged. Flashbacks to happier times in Alice’s life reveal that she had a forbidden romance with a woman, Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a love doomed by divergence in their opinions on motherhood. Vera wanted children. Alice didn’t. So it goes. Alice, isolated in Summerland’s present by choice, resents children right down to the very fact of their existence, and rejects parenthood as a calling that she, and for that matter anybody else, must answer.
On paper the movie’s logline reads as a pro-motherhood argument, as if motherhood is a one-size-fits-all occupation every woman must apply for. But Summerland has less to say about motherhood per se and more to say about womanhood in consideration of motherhood: Not every woman wants to be a mother, and some women perhaps even define their identities separated from the thought of motherhood entirely. In Alice’s case, motherhood is foisted on her by war, and Summerland focuses on the constricting effect that her role as Frank’s reluctant guardian has on not her life but her wellbeing. Yes, Frank endears himself to Alice in short order—he’s a sweetheart born with the gifts of a good head on his shoulders and a kind soul—but Summerland treats their inevitable bond as the result of a sacrifice Alice shouldn’t have to make, and moral responsibility aside, that’s what looking after Frank is: a sacrifice.
Arterton wears Alice’s burden with wary and prickly resolve. She’s the antisocial sort as well as Frank’s unwilling caretaker, so Arterton alternates between steeling her soft facial features and relaxing them to neutral. Most of Alice’s interactions with the film’s authority figures, such as local school principal Mr. Sullivan (Tom Courtenay) and her various village peers, go unfavorably given her status as a recluse, and Arterton conducts herself with a prototypically English ferocity. She’s angry enough to make what passes in Britain as a scene, but not enough that she discards her dignity. As Summerland brings Alice and Frank closer together, that anger remains but melts down just enough that Arterton is able to shape it into compassion, which bleeds into heartache as Swale’s continued time jumps dig further into Vera, and Alice, and how they happened to grow apart. Mbatha-Raw has much less to work with than Arterton, but Arterton’s operating at such high capacity that a better fleshed-out version of Vera still might not resonate as strongly. Arterton’s at a peak in her career here, repurposing bits and pieces of her work in Their Finest for a film with much more intentional sentiment.
And that sentiment, for audiences who find Summerland, strikes true under our present circumstances. “Nobody knows how to be a parent, especially now,” Sullivan tells Alice just before the movie’s final act. “We all just muddle through as best we can.” It’s a rare moment of empathy shared by characters who otherwise fail to get on, but it’s surprisingly relevant to the moment as well as to its own message. Children are raised as only the people raising them know how. Alice had no plans to be a mother, yet by happy accident Frank fit into her plans anyway. Swale sees as much beauty in her setting, the geometry of Southern England’s shores, as she does in the complications of Alice’s task. They muddle through. They have no choice, but it’s the absence of choice that ultimately gives Summerland complexity.
Director: Jessica Swale
Writer: Jessica Swale
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Lucas Bond, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Courtenay, Dixie Egerickx, Penelope Wilton
Release Date: July 31, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.