Review by Sean Boelman
Wartime romances are typically a very sentimental genre, and writer-director Jessica Swale’s feature debut Summerland is no exception to that rule. Sweet but disappointingly safe, this has a wonderful cast and the potential to be so much more, but too often settles for crowd-pleasing tropes to be particularly memorable.
The film follows a woman as she opens her home to a young evacuee from London, soon discovering that they have a deeper connection than she had initially thought. It’s a story that is much more simple and predictable than it seems to want to acknowledge, relying on a not-so-unexpected twist to get emotion out of the audience.
This evacuee storyline pales in comparison to the much more compelling portion of the movie, a lesbian romance taking place through the protagonist’s flashbacks. Yet by relegating this storyline to the back burner, Swale loses a lot of the earnest sympathy that the character would have earned from the more likable aspects of her personality.
Instead, Swale hopes that the character earns the audience’s love through the growth of heart she shows. The issue is that this arc is almost all confined to the third act, leaving two-thirds of the film with the protagonist as an inhospitable hermit. Of course, anyone with experience in the genre knows that she will break out of her misanthropic ways, but it takes a lot of patience to get to that point.
That said, Gemma Arterton’s performance in the lead role is quite solid. Even though it’s disappointing to see her being typecast in this same type of role again and again, she is at least able to pull some of the humanity out of the material. Young actor Lucas Wilson is great in his role, showing a lot of charm and great chemistry with Arterton. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Tom Courtneay are also excellent (as expected), but are wasted in small roles.
The idea of imagination and hope radiates through the movie, and this is arguably its biggest waste of potential. There are some legitimately interesting things happening in the script, but many of them, including the eponymous idea of “Summerland”, are left disappointingly underdeveloped as good ideas that are never explored.
It’s also disappointing that the film didn’t do more with these fantasy aspects in a visual sense. While the beautiful English countryside provides some magnificent background scenery, there’s not a whole lot of inventiveness to Swale’s approach. The movie is certainly competent, and she has a clearly good eye — it just would have been nice to see her take a few more risks.
Had Summerland not been afraid to take some risks with its edgier material, it could have been absolutely wonderful. Unfortunately, as it is now, it’s a passable drama with solid performances and a penchant for taking the easy way out.
Summerland hits theaters and VOD on July 31.