Dir: Jessica Swale. Starring: Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton, Lucas Bond, Dixie Egerickx, Amanda Root. 12A cert, 99 mins.
There is a place known as Summerland. Wiccans believe that they go there after they die, to rest in fields and woodlands kissed by a constant sun. Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton), a folklore expert and misanthropic cynic, thinks it’s all hokum. But even she admits: “Stories have to come from somewhere.”
It’s these stories that Alice, the protagonist of Jessica Swale’s debut film, has dedicated her life to, writing screeds on the scientific and historical origins of legends. And it’s the idea of truth buried under fiction that writer-director Swale seems most invested in here, in a film that marks a shift to the silver screen after years on the theatre circuit (her play Nell Gwynn saw two of Summerland’s stars, Arterton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, in the lead role). But Summerland’s setting is bound to feel awfully familiar.
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We first meet Alice in old age (Penelope Wilton), hunched over a typewriter, pausing only to tell a couple of children collecting for charity to “bugger off”. As a young woman, sometime during the Second World War, she’s much the same, though she smokes like a chimney. She’s the Grinch of her Kentish village – a despiser of children, community, and general merriment. When she happens upon a mother glumly telling her daughter that they don’t have enough ration coupons for chocolate, Alice uses hers to buy a bar, then promptly walks off with it.
She wears dowdy cardigans and wraps scarves around her head to keep her frizzy locks at bay; when deep in thought, she’ll start to twirl a few strands. Arterton finds the necessary balance. Her Alice is abrasive, but witty and lively all the same. She’s a picture of the reclusive intellectual. The locals say she’s a witch. They question why she’s still unmarried. To make matters worse, she’s abruptly handed guardianship over Frank (Lucas Bond), one of the many children evacuated out of London.
As might be expected, Alice is a terror at first. She scolds him for touching her things and leaves him to cook his own dinner. But, in time, a few motherly intuitions are coaxed out of her – when he hurts his knee, she tenderly dabs it with rubbing alcohol. Frank’s arrival has also made Alice feel oddly nostalgic. Memories are brought to life by a single word or a dusty programme tucked under piles of paper. She loved a woman once – Vera (Mbatha-Raw, once again in a role too small for her talents). It uncaged Alice’s spirit, all while the impossibility of their union left them cornered.
Summerland shows us how being robbed of self-expression – sexual or emotional – can feel like slow suffocation. But it’s too afraid of uncertainty. Every aspect of Alice’s psyche is resolved in a dramatic (and improbable) series of revelations. She may scoff at those who put their faith in “magic or God”, but it’s an easy position to take in a world where things always meet their proper end. Who needs religion when you have the powers of cinematic convention?