When the trailer for Summerland debuted, it had all the hallmarks of a classic British period piece: sprawling greens, white cliff edges, clear, cold waters and wind that whipped Gemma Arterton's hair around her face as she stared forlornly out at the vast expanse of ocean.
But Summerland is so much more than just another costume drama, because though it does check many of those boxes, it is a story that invokes more than just the stiff-upper-lip trope that so many British war stories are built upon. Instead, Summerland is a story about love, motherhood and, yes, lesbians.
Written and directed by Jessica Sawle, the film is set during World War Two and follows a reclusive writer named Alice (Gemma Arterton) who has her sequestered life upended when Frank (Lucas Bond), an evacuee from the London Blitz, is left in her care. Despite initially resolving to be rid of him, Alice finds herself and her emotions reawakened by him.
The aforementioned emotions are all to do with a love she lost – a woman named Vera (Gugu Mbatha Raw) who is as enigmatic as she is tangible, even though we mostly get to know her through Alice's rose-tinted glasses. Vera still has her own desires and her own path, and is more than just a foil for Alice's journey.
Those who are keen to use the word schmaltzy to describe Summerland aren't wrong, but sometimes schmaltzy is good. Summerland leans into that sentimental feeling just enough to make your heart swell, pulling back just before you roll your eyes.
"When you've been through the sort of suffering that Alice has and the loss that happens to lots of characters in the film, to think that there is a possibility that they, they might walk away from the film into a brighter place is something that I feel like as a filmmaker we shouldn't shy away from," Sawle told us.
And then there are the twists. We won't get into them here, but there are some big ones. What we can tell you is Gemma Arterton was as shocked as we were.
Arterton said: "It took my breath away. I remember it so clearly – that I turned the page and read something that reveals a twist. And I just [gasped], 'Oh', and then I cried like, 'Oh my god I can't believe it!', it was a joy.
"I just had no idea [it was coming]. And it was wonderful to get that reaction from just reading something, which I think is a credit to Jess, and her writing. And I was so embroiled in the story and the relationships that I just didn't even anticipate anything. That's what I hope the audience will feel when they watch it."
Arterton's hopes were certainly vindicated, at least in our opinion. The result is, for better or worse, that there's a good half-hour that feels like it's come from an entirely different movie, but because the characters are still so themselves it's not jarring.
A defining characteristic of Alice is that she definitely does not like children. To have a young boy foist upon her tests not only her reclusive nature but the bounds of her empathy, vulnerability, and how she defines herself as separate from others, because women are so often defined by our relation to others: we are mothers, wives, daughters, but so rarely just ourselves.
Alice defines herself by bucking those trends, but in doing so is also a victim to them, which Arterton agreed with. "She's spent her life deliberately avoiding people because she got so hurt the last time she got close to somebody. And so being forced to deal with this boy makes her have to confront certain things about herself."
Summerland explores what it means to be a woman, and particularly a lesbian woman, and what it means to be a mother. It does so with a gentle gaze that allows the story to unfurl on its own terms, without foolhardily claiming it knows the answer for anyone other than Alice.
Summerland is out in cinemas now.
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