Making a tearjerker that still has a sense of fun to it is a fairly difficult proposition. After all, you want the emotions to seem real, so the playfulness can’t overwhelm it, or frankly, vice-versa. While the back half of Summerland goes for emotions and tears more than the first part, which is lighter and almost comic, the film manages to work on its own merits. To be sure, a main reason why the movie works is Gemma Arterton, who gets to shine in a juicy lead role. Now playing, it’s an option that adults longing for some solid drama can really sink their teeth into.
The film is a drama, set during World War II. Alice (Arterton) is a reclusive writer, living a rather solitary life in a small town on the seaside cliffs of Southern England. The war rages, but she’s largely unconcerned, just focused on her writing and memories of a past with a close companion in Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), while expressing a largely misanthropic streak that either scares or angers the other townspeople. One day, she opens her door to realized she’s been signed up to adopt a young London evacuee. Despite protests, Alice is forced to take in Frank (Lucas Bond), though to call her hesitant about the arrangement is an understatement. Eventually, the two begin to bond, before the war hits them in a very real way. Eventually, they’ll also come to realize they have more in common than Alice had assumed, with emotional results. Jessica Swale writes and directs, with cinematography by Laurie Rose, while Volker Bertelmann composes the score. Supporting players include Tom Courtenay, Aoibhine McFlynn, Penelope Wilton, and more.
Gemma Arterton’s performance here is easily the movie’s biggest selling point. She’s a pleasure to watch when she’s being a hermit, though still wildly effective when she opens her heart a bit. Arterton has long been underrated and this is more evidence here. She digs deep for anger, bitterness, emotion, and even tragedy. Her sequences with Gugu Mbatha-Raw are terrific as well, even if Mbatha-Raw isn’t given too much room to shine. Arterton, Mbatha-Raw, and Tom Courtenay leave the best impressions, though this is truly Arterton’s show. She’s given a juicy role and makes sure to not let it go to waste.
Summerland is at its best when there’s an easygoing nature to it during the first section. Watching Arterton’s misanthrope slowly adjust to having a child in her life produces some laughs, as well as some quality acting. Towards the end, when there’s revelations, tragedy, and a quest to get you to cry, it’s more hit or miss, though a final reveal is more effective than I was expecting. Filmmaker Jessica Swale does manage to make the changes in tone not completely jarring, peppering in heavier sequences even when things are still largely on the lighter side. Visually, she has a lovely style, so if there’s any missteps here, it’s in the quest for heavier drama towards the end.
This weekend, fans of British drama would do well to give Summerland a shot. It’s the sort of flick that unabashedly is pitching itself to adult audiences, and not in the smutty sense, either. It’s just mature, plain and simple. Even if some of the moments don’t ring as truly as others, the tone finds its way and Gemma Arterton is so good, this is well worth seeking out. If you give it a chance, you’ll likely enjoy what you find. It may not be Academy Award level fare, but it’s a very solid viewing option today. Arterton alone is worth the price of admission.
Be sure to check out Summerland, available on VOD now!
(Photos courtesy of IFC Films)