Film Review: Summerland

STUDIO: IFC Films | DIRECTOR: Jessica Swale | CAST: Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Lucas Bond,
RELEASE DATE: July 31, 2020
SPECS: PG | 99 min. | Drama | 2.35:1 | widescreen

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie 

In this pleasant drama set in Southern England during World War II, the immensely talented Gemma Arterton (Byzantium, Gemma Bovery) stars as a reclusive academic writer who uses her skills to quash folktales and magical occurrences, most recently a growing pagan belief about Summerland, a mystical afterlife contained on floating island in the sky.

Gemma Arterton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Summerland.

Arterton’s Alice doesn’t get out much, but when she does, her unmarried status, progressive independence and brisk personality ruffle the feathers of her more traditional fellow townsfolk. Alice doesn’t fare much better with children, either, so it’s no surprise she’s displeased when she’s charged with the temporary care of Frank (Lucas Bond, Slumber), a young boy evacuated from London during the Blitz. It’s also no surprise—for a story that broadcasts its direction early on—that Alice’s grinchy heart grows a few sizes and a bond between the two begins to form. Okay, what is surprising is that pre-teen boy in the 1940s figures out Alice’s deep secret of a forbidden love affair she had years ago with a woman named Vera (Belle’s Gugu Mbatha-Raw). It’s only when the war that’s been raging on the other side of the channel intrudes onto the pair’s happy domestic life that truth behind Alice’s connection to Frank are unveiled, and it must just involve a little bit of the magic that Alice has debunked all her life.

Summerland is a solid debut feature from UK playwright Jessica Swale who assuredly helms her own screenplay. The comfort level between the filmmaker and her leading players can be clearly seen on the screen—she previously directed Arterton and Mbatha-Raw in her Olivier Award-winning play Nell Gwynn –and that natural ease and amiable chemistry extends beyond the performers and includes the camera, which never feels obtrusive as it captures the drama. Indeed, each moment feels lived in with a level of intimacy that goes beyond what’s written in the script.

In particular, Arterton does a great job in portraying Alice, adding a fresh dimension to the familiar idea of a hardened character being softened by a young interloper. She infuses Alice with a depth and range of moods that make her arc believable and keeps the story engaging if a bit predictable.

Summerland scratches the surface of themes of life and death, love and loss, prejudgments and acceptance—nothing that hasn’t been explored countless times in warm, pastoral dramas of this kind—but it does offer a few sweet, small and unique takeaways on each, which makes it a pleasant place to stop and spend a few hours.

Summerland premieres on Friday, July 31, in select theaters and VOD/digital platforms.

Watch Summerland

About Janine

Janine is a dedicated fan of the 1940 film Kitty Foyle, directed by Sam Wood, written by Dalton Trumbo and starring Ginger Rogers, who won an Oscar for her portrayal. And seeing that film is all it took to make her a lifelong movie lover. Janine is excited to add her insights to the great team at