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VOD Review: Summerland

August 21, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Written and directed by playwright Jessica Swale, making her feature directorial debut, Summerland is an enjoyably low-key character drama set in the English countryside during the height of World War II.

The film centres around Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton), a reclusive writer who lives alone in the country. She spends her time quietly researching mythology and apparitions of castles in the sky, only to be interrupted by local children who harass her, mistakenly believing that she is a witch, or worse, a Nazi spy.

But her world turns upside down when a boy named Frank (Lucas Bond) is dropped off on her doorstep. Frank is an evacuee from London whose pilot father is off fighting in the war, and has been sent to the country to avoid air raids. At the start of Summerland, Alice is quite ornery and anti-social. But as she slowly bonds with Frank, she starts to open up and reveal more sides of herself.

Swale uses the somewhat familiar premise of someone being thrust into a parental role that they didn’t choose, to explore different types of motherhood and the societal expectations placed upon women in the 1940s. With a sure hand, Swale slowly but surely pulls back more layers of Alice’s story, including the introduction of an old friend (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) that she often finds herself reminiscing about, who is glimpsed in flashbacks.

The film reveals itself to be a touching story about how we push people away when we are scared they won’t accept us, leading to a dinner table conversation between Alice and Frank that is one of the film’s most poignant moments. Arterton, (who has a knack for period pieces having also starred in the WWII drama Their Finest, which would make a quite wonderful double bill with this one), does a nice job of portraying Alice’s character arc from snappish recluse to reluctant matriarch.

The film is named for the ancient Pagan version of heaven, where it was believed that souls would go prior to the rise of Christianity, and the popularization of a Biblical interpretation of the after life. As Alice explains to Frank in the film, the Pagans believed that Summerland existed on a different plane of existence that our eyes couldn’t see, but the souls who had moved on there would send us messages through the clouds. This allows for a few moments of magical realism, which I found were nicely incorporated into the film.

Yes, we can pretty much see where Summerland is going once more pieces of the plot are revealed, but it’s quite touching to watch it unfold. I found the film to be have a very pleasant and enjoyable quality to it. It’s buoyed by lush cinematography courtesy of Laurie Rose, and plays out at a laid back and very relaxing pace, offering a bittersweet portrait of life during wartime.

Summerland is now available for rent and purchase on a variety of digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by levelFILM.

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