Lesbian period piece "Summerland" brings surprises and unexpected connections
Can some broken hearts ever be mended? That's one of the questions viewers are asked to consider when they meet Summerland's leading lady, Alice (Gemma Arterton). We first meet Alice when she's a grumpy, mono-focused mature writer in the 70s, and quickly find our way back to 1941 England, when Alice is a grumpy, mono-focused writer in her 30s. Obsessed with her academic writings about folklore and harboring deep emotional wounds from love lost years before, Alice is a sort of village pariah. She's unbearable at times and downright nasty at others, but Alice's life is about to change when she is asked to look after a young evacuee from London, Frank (an excellent Lucas Bond).
It takes time for Alice to warm up to the young boy, but as she does, we learn more and more about how she became so reclusive and guarded, and how it all leads back to a charismatic woman named Vera (the terribly underused Gugu Mbatha-Raw). We get flashes of Alice and Vera's life together, but you're left wanting much more. What you do get is a lovely story of connection and found family between Alice and Frank, who forge a bond during a truly frightening time in UK history. There are ups and downs, lessons learned, hearts healed and a third act twist that this reviewer did not see coming.
Arterton, who has been at the helm of a number of period dramas, has the goods to pull off the cantankerous Alice, without losing her to her callousness early on. When Alice finally breaks down, it works because Arterton sells the journey. Bond is a wonderful foil for Arterton and projects a depth of kindness as Frank, which is something Alice is unaccustomed to. As mentioned earlier, Mbatha-Raw is underused and the meat of her story feels like it might have ended up on the cutting room floor.* As usual, she sparkles with whatever material she's given, but I have a feeling you'll be left wanting much more of this character. Summerland is director/writer Jessica Swale's first feature film, though she is an experienced stage director, and she shows much promise in the medium. In a special Q&A with Newfest, Swale, who identifies as straight, said she didn't set out to tell a gay love story but her connection to her friends and colleagues in the LGBTQ community inspired her to do so. (*Update: Swale did say that yes, that some scenes between Alice and Vera were cut and/or not included due to film timing issues.)