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Residing alone in a country cottage overlooking the White Cliffs of Dover, Alice Lamb, the romantic heroine of Summerland (★★★☆☆), is the movie epitome of a reclusive writer. All well-worn sweaters and cigarettes as she downs mugs of tea and pounds away at her typewriter, Alice eagerly lives up to her reputation as the village eccentric among her neighbors in 1940s Kent. Played in her cantankerous later years by Downton Abbey‘s Penelope Wilton, the character is embodied for most of Summerland by Gemma Arterton, who radiates powerful and genuine enough emotion that Alice resonates beyond what could have been a dull type.
In last year’s Vita & Virginia, Arterton similarly revealed intriguing facets of love and regret portraying real-life writer Vita Sackville-West in the throes of star-crossed passion with Virginia Woolf. Here, Arterton captures a writer who, whether she’ll admit it or not, has been wrecked by an affair that ended painfully. Alice now keeps the world at a distance, while pouring herself into completing her life’s work: an academic analysis of folklore — witches, myths, and magic. Alice’s single-minded devotion to her mythological pursuits, added to her obstinately antisocial behavior, explains why the local children have branded her a witch, with some of the adults coming up with even worse names for her.
Really, she’s just misunderstood, as the film — the feature filmmaking debut of acclaimed English playwright Jessica Swale — sets out to prove in the time-honored tradition of dropping a moppet in need on Alice’s doorstep. “It’s wartime and everyone’s got to do their bit,” Alice is reminded by school headmaster Mr. Sullivan (Tom Courtenay). So she very reluctantly takes in a young evacuee from London named Frank (Lucas Bond).
An innocent kid but an old soul, Frank bonds easily with Alice, despite her attempts to avoid exactly that outcome. They make a cozy pair, and, indeed, Bond and Arterton work fabulously well together as the handsomely shot film marks Alice and Frank’s growing familial attachment to one another. Their bond will be tested dramatically, which brings out great moments from both actors.
Opening her heart to Frank also leads Alice on a path of remembrance, recalling when she opened her heart to romance with the scintillating Vera, played with fierce joie de vivre by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Unfortunately, Mbatha-Raw’s performance, and the film’s romantic storyline, are reduced to snippets of scenes, fragments of memory meant to tug Alice back to a past she must reckon with to move forward. The movie ripples with jolts of memory and extended flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks to a love story between Alice and Vera that feels vaguely sketched at best
Alice’s attempts to explain her vision of a place called Summerland — a myth, a metaphor, or a concept of the afterlife — are equally muddled. But piercing through those layers of meaning and pretense, the performances, particularly Arterton’s, strike a chord of something deeply felt and true.
Summerland is available on Friday, July 31 on VOD. Visit www.summerlandmovie.com.
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