There is a scene early on in “Summerland,” a romantic WWII drama by Jessica Swale, that calls to mind the pilot of “Killing Eve.” In “Killing Eve,” we first meet assassin Villanelle (Jodi Comer) in an ice cream shop, where, after smiling benignly at a little girl, she walks out and pushes the little girl’s ice cream onto her lap. In an early “Summerland” sequence, we get to know Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton), village misanthrope. The absolute peak of her misbehavior comes when, after happening upon a woman and daughter coveting ration chocolate at the local grocer, she asks to buy the chocolate bar herself. Though the girl and mother thank her effusively, Alice slips the chocolate into her own coat pocket and strolls out of the shop, pleased, Volker Bertelmann’s jaunty score at her heels.
“Summerland” is about a lot of things, many of which are rarely depicted in film: Pagan folklore, the history of Kent, vintage homophobia. But its most novel invention is Alice, a decidedly unpleasant heroine who does not spend the course of the film learning how to love, or earning the right to a happy ending. In her old age, Alice (played as an elder by Penelope Wilton) remains perfectly bitter and rude. After years of discourse about complicated women – whether women like Villanelle or Amy in “Gone Girl” are problematic or empowering – “Summerland” finally gives us a grumpy, introverted lesbian and decides, definitively, that there is absolutely nothing wrong with her.
That’s not to say that Alice doesn’t learn a lesson or two throughout the film. When Alice is tasked with caring for Frank (Lucas Bond), a young London evacuee, she openly wants nothing to do with him. He sleeps on a cot and is served raw food he must cook himself. Alice is considerably closed off, partly because her parents are dead and largely because the love of her life has left. (And it’s not as though 1940s Kent is crawling with lesbian rebounds.) But while her budding relationship with Frank does teach Alice the virtues of trusting another human being, that process does not magically make her genteel. As an old woman, one of the first things she says is to two children collecting for charity: “Good for you.”
And for all her faults and emotional clumsiness – because even when she warms up to Frank, she still messes up a lot – Alice is easily one of the most lovable characters put to film this year.
Credit for this goes largely to Arterton, who pulls off Alice’s signature dourness with aplomb, while also meshing seamlessly with the characters she loves. She is most vibrant alongside Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays her long-lost love, Vera. The two make such a charming couple that it is difficult to get through certain scenes between them without your heart growing several sizes, like the Grinch on Christmas. Bond is a game performer as Frank, too, especially alongside Dixie Egerickx, who plays his schoolmate, Edie – another refreshing female character, who, in her own words, is an “individualist” who does not “fulfill the feminine ideal.”
This film, like its caustic protagonist, is as feminist and fierce as it is heartwarming. The title comes from Summerland, the Pagans’ idea of heaven – something Alice pursues as part of her folkloric theses, which have led her to observe that all mythical women are “bound to get blamed for something.” But for all their progressive ideas – a lesbian relationship, feminist parables, casual racial diversity in a period film – the filmmakers do make one head-scratching decision. Writer-director Swale and cinematographer Laurie Rose never show Alice and Vera kissing. Even in an intimate bed scene, where the women obviously do, Mbatha Raw’s shoulder blocks the view. Perhaps this censorship was demanded of the filmmakers in order to attain a PG rating, but it nonetheless feels strange, particularly in such an otherwise unselfconscious, progressive film.
“Summerland” offers a lot of novel material, but at its heart, its message is hardly new. Human connection matters, even in the darkest of times. World War II was very bad. Love conquers all. But it is the way “Summerland” presents these ideas – through the eyes of the village witch – that makes them so meaningful. Despite a few foibles, “Summerland” will show you love as you have never seen it before. [A]