Set against the backdrop of the early days of World War II in England, playwright Jessica Swale’s feature directorial debut Summerland (which she also wrote) is one of those fine British films that we’ve seen dozens of times before, but—buoyed by rich performances by Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and young Lucas Bond—still manages to squirrel itself into your heart. The age-old tale of a crusty curmudgeon softened by the presence of an adorable, sympathetic child is more ancient, it seems, than time itself, but when done right (as it is here), it has the ability to become something rather special.
Summerland begins and finishes with a 1975-set bookend that’s set in a quaint beachside cottage next to the white cliffs of Dover, where we find the elderly Alice Lamb (Penelope Wilton) pecking away at her memoir while enduring the taunts of the prankster neighborhood kids. From there we jump back in time to 1940 for the bulk of the movie, when a much-younger Alice (Arterton) is sitting at the same typewriter, working on an academic thesis about popular folklore. It turns out she’s always been the village pariah, shunned by the local folk and viewed as a boogeyman-esque witch (“the beast on the beach”) by youngsters. She’s quite happy in her solitude, and the more she can do to make the town shun her, the better.
The wartime practice of London parents sending their kids to the countryside during the Blitz lands young Frank (Bond) at her door; his dad is an RAF pilot, and his mother works in a government office. Naturally, she’s put out at the thought of having another person share her roof, especially a kid (“You don’t expect me to cook for you… there’s the stove,” she tells him), but they can’t help but slowly bond, especially once he begins to show interest in the folklore she’s made her life’s work. He’s particularly taken with the idea of the pagan “heaven” Summerland, which supposedly appears in the form of a mirage on the horizon, framed by the ocean and the sky.
Frank’s stay, which was originally supposed to last a week (before he gets sloughed off to a new family) winds up stretching longer, and Alice’s heart continues to soften all the while. Eventually she warms enough to tell Frank of her past relationship with Vera (Mbatha-Raw), a forbidden fling in the 1920s (which is shown in flashbacks) that ended when Vera announced she wanted a family. The scars are still there, and Frank, if nothing else, becomes the confidant she never had.
Full of raw emotion and a delicate, sweet undertone that filters through virtually every frame—not to mention plenty of quintessentially British humor and stunning coastal cinematography—Summerland is a treasure of a family film (appropriate for, say, 10 and up?). Arterton and Bond are a delight together, and even though it’s a plot we’ve seen countless times, it’s rarely done at this level. This is no mirage. Summerland is the real deal.