In Kent during World War II, Alice, who has never got over a broken relationship, reluctantly takes in Frank, a young evacuee. Initially resolving to be rid of him within a week, she eventually opens her heart to him.
Some of the insults and accusations aimed at women down the ages may be dependent on current events, but the mistrust of those who don’t fit the mould is eternal, and some descriptors never go away.
It’s World War Two and Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton), writer on folklore and debunker of the attached myths and legends, is therefore both possible Nazi spy and definite witch, according to the local children.
She’s currently investigating the Fata Morgana, or floating islands phenomenon – a type of mirage named after Morgan Le Fey, sorceress and anti-heroine of the Arthurian legends.
Alice lives alone in a clifftop cottage in Kent, writing her thesis, tormented by kids and the recipient of many a raised eyebrow from the adults.
When she’s told she must take in Frank (Lucas Bond), a young evacuee whose father is at sea and whose mother is working in London, she only agrees if she can hand him back after a week. Eventually grudgingly accepting him, Frank’s childish enthusiasm for life gradually effects a thaw on her.
Irascible and spiky doesn’t really do Alice’s distinctive personality justice. She’s actively unpleasant to children – we later find out why she holds them responsible for her loneliness – but her constant selfishness becomes wearing. Even walking past the station where a group of evacuated children wait on the platform she curls her lip in distaste.
I’m not keen on films where children (or any other marginalised character) is tasked with teasing out the goodness of someone else with more agency, however upsetting that person’s back story, so it’s hard to feel sympathy for Alice.
That said, the story itself (written and directed by Jessica Swale) is moving and beautifully told, with terrific performances. Bond and Dixie Egerickx, who plays Frank’s new schoolfriend Edie, are hugely impressive, and Arterton is remarkable. She never shies away from the truth of a damaged woman deflecting her hurt. When Alice thinks back to the broken love affair that has dominated her life, the pull-push of resurfaced, painful memories, now addictively replayed, is clear on her face.
Alice cuts poor Frank no slack – it’s quite hard to watch her on the doorstep, arguing with organiser Mrs Lawrence over whether she should take him in, while the boy stands there. Even once they’re living together she’s only nice to him when he shows interest in her work. Obsessed with truth, she drives off in a rage when she thinks he’s lied to here about spotting a mirage of Dover Castle hovering in the air. She returns to get him not because she should but because she’s presented with evidence he was telling the truth. (She also serves him tiny portions at dinner but that’s rationing for you.)
Her awfulness drives one of the film’s few jokes, when she spies a small child in a shop desperate for a bar of chocolate but without the required ration stamps. Alice buys the chocolate, then – with everyone in the shop smiling expectantly, waiting for Alice to hand it over to the little girl – stomps outside and eats it, the child’s wails a crescendo in the background. It’s clever because I did laugh, suddenly complicit after all my harrumphing about how unpleasant she is.
Like someone grown grouchy from years of chronic pain, Alice’s torment is her great love affair with Vera (a luminous but underused Gugu Mbatha-Raw). It plays out in flashback, from their first meeting at a concert in 1926 followed by a trip to lesbian dance club, to their break up because of Vera’s desperate need to be a mother.
At school Frank’s friendship with the forthright Edie blossoms, despite the little girl’s own lonely prickliness. She’s a mini Alice in the making, often non-conformist and often just rude, though she too is convinced Frank’s new guardian is a witch. “They’ll never find your body!” she shrieks gleefully as he rushes home, though Edie is also tentative when she meets Alice. After all, childhood is a time for stories and folklore (even if children often come to a bad end in the tales themselves).
Alice’s scientific approach is fascinating to Frank but it takes her a while to understand sometimes children need magic. She briskly explains to him there can be no biblical heaven because where did the souls of pre-Christians go. (It can also backfire. I used to try that kind of no-nonsense approach with my children and I accidentally turned my obstinate 7-year-old into a Flat Earther.)
Frank needs that escapism when his dad goes missing. For Frank, Summerland, the mythical pagan afterlife Alice tells him about, becomes a way to cope.
Summerland looks considerably more expensive than its £850,000 budget would suggest. It often feels as if we’re watching the story solely through Alice’s eyes: there’s a freedom to the wide and windswept outdoors and Alice’s ramshackle cottage, contrasting with the neatness of the local village. The flashbacks are shot much closer, dreamy memories that Alice both clings to and runs from.
Tom Courtenay provides sterling support as kindly headmaster Mr Sullivan, presumably brought out of retirement after the village’s younger men were called up; with Siân Phillips as Edie’s nose-wrinkling, always-proper grandmother. The film is bookended with Alice in 1975. She’s played by Penelope Wilton, and the line from 1940s Alice to 30 years on couldn’t be clearer (“bugger off” Old Alice tells two local children).
These are familiar themes and settings, though Vera and Alice’s captivating and obsessional relationship makes Summerland more interesting than your average period Britflick. The pain of lost love is made worse because it has to remain secret.
Still, it doesn’t really follow through on its message about letting go of the measurable and explainable, and just enjoying the mirage.
Loose ends are stitched together so neatly you could submit it to a WI embroidery competition; eventually the floating castles in the air are gone, real life resumes and everyone is happy (apart from Frank’s dad who seems to have been dealt the short straw). It’s good news for my overused tear-ducts but not for the frayed edges of life where reality meets myth.
Summerland is out in UK cinemas on 31 July.
Read my article Some thoughts on Summerland (warning: very spoilery)
Watch the trailer now: