Gemma Arterton as Alice
Written and directed by Jessica Swale
During World War II, reclusive writer Alice has her sequestered life upended when Frank, an evacuee from the London Blitz, is left in her care. Despite initially resolving to be rid of him, Alice finds herself and her emotions reawakened by him.
At one point in Summerland, a young man named Frank worries that his toy plane might crash when he throws it over a cliff. Alice, his crusty old caretaker, responds by explaining, “Life is not kind. Anguish is inevitable. Your heart will break. Your friends will die. You may even think about killing yourself. Planes crash, Frank. What matters is how you deal with it.”
That’s the movie in a nutshell. You see, Alice once endured heartbreak and decided to shut the door to her Southern England beach house order to eliminate any potential pain in the future. As such, she morphed into a crotchety spinster who spends her time writing fantasy novels and terrorizing the local townsfolk. In an early scene, she quite literally takes candy from a child.
Into her tightly wound grasp falls Frank, a London evacuee who bears more than his fair share of problems — his family is stuck dealing with WWII, after all. The relationship between Alice and Frank starts out icy. “Speak when you’re spoken to,” Alice snaps before berating the timid young man for telling a joke laced with factual errors.
Will this odd couple eventually come to terms with one another? Will Alice find room in her heart for Frank? Will Alice ever love again? Well, yes, actually. And quite early, in fact. Alice undergoes her obligatory character change less than thirty minutes into the movie, and then the real story begins.
You see, Summerland isn’t really about a boy and a woman discovering friendship. Well, at least that’s only part of the story. Instead, Jessica Swale’s film focuses on the difficulty of letting go of past pains and learning how to cope with life’s inescapable complications. There’s a moment when Alice must decide when to relay terrible news to Frank, which arrives on the kid’s birthday. Does she tell him right away and risk robbing Frank of a happy moment? Or does she allow him to cling to happiness for as long as possible? If it’s the latter, then how will she tell him tomorrow? How will he react? Will he ever learn to “deal” with the pain? Will he run and hide like Alice did so many years before?
Summerland works as an effective character study featuring strong performances from its cast and a wonderful score from Volker Bertelmann. Nothing about the plot or the film’s rather tidy resolution will blow anyone’s socks off but there are a number of quietly powerful moments and more than a few interesting surprises in Swale’s script to keep viewers engaged.
Make sure you bring a box of tissues … just in case.
To say much more would reveal the film’s secrets, which would ruin the fun. Suffice to say, Summerland carries a big heart and enough magic to make it a place worth visiting.