There should be a moratorium on movies about young boys during World War 2. There are just way, way too many of them. Sure, some of these movies are great, like the disturbing recent parable The Painted Bird. But for every film like that or Au Revoirs Les Enfants, there is a cloying film like Jojo Rabbit, something that infantilizes war and its immediate aftermath. Summerland belongs continues in that tradition of saccharine melodrama, a film so tiresome and ingratiating that it loses its modest charm almost immediately.
The opening narrative is an immediate giveaway. It is the 1970s and Penelope Wilton plays Alice, a writer who is about to reflect fondly about a pivotal episode in her life. Writer/director Jessica Swale sets almost the entire story in flashback, with Gemma Arterton playing Alice as a young woman. Short-tempered and reclusive, she lives alone on the English coast away from the World War 2 blitz. Much to her chagrin, Alice finds herself in the care of Frank (Lucas Bond), a sullen boy who stays with her while his parents contribute to the war effort. Alice prefers solitude – she lets the townsfolk believe she is a witch – but she invariably develops a fondness for her new ward.
Summerland has the familiar set-up and payoff of a cinematic bauble, the sort of thing you put on with your grandmother when you run out of stuff to say. The humor and performances are gentle, with dialogue and situations that are never too challenging. The white cliffs of the English countryside are meant to reassure the audience that this film will be better the less you think about it. There is a key difference between this film and other historical dramedies: a subplot where we learn Alice is a gay, and yearns for her ex-lover Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
The story of her two relationships – one maternal, the other romantic – dovetail in a way that’s breathtakingly shallow and obvious. I won’t spoil it here, except to say there are only so many directions that a film with so few important characters can go. Swale does not lay the groundwork for any emotional payoff, so the melodrama exists primarily for its own sake. Whether you find this material moving or cynical depends a lot on your willingness to suspend your disbelief.
Gemma Arterton is an odd choice for Alice. The character is inward, mousy, a little hostile. Arterton is too conventionally beautiful for the part, so she gives the unnerving of impression of a star pretending to be a frumpy academic. Other reliable actors ease into their roles, like Mbatha-Raw and Tom Courtenay as a hapless school headmaster. Either way, the likable cast cannot shake the incongruity between the idyll of the countryside and the horrors of war.
Likeminded films integrated that incongruity into their plot – Jojo Rabbit and Life Beautiful are about futile attempts to preserve childlike innocence – except Summerland lacks even that level of self-awareness. If the film never engages with its premise in any serious way, not even the most charming actors can ultimately save it.
Poignancy does not satisfy Summerland. It must wrap its neat ending in a bow, offering even more assurances that these nice, quirky people find some measure of happiness. There is a coda to the film where we return to the seventies, and an aged Alice reveals herself as a thoughtful, mature woman. In case her warm face did not make that clear, there is a moment where Alice rewrites a dedication for new book, telling the audience that yes, she really has changed. This film does not merely hold us by the hand. It practically pries open our mouth into a forced, uncomfortable smile.