Gemma Arterton's Hollywood films – Clash of the Titans, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters – have not done much to showcase her talents. You have to look to the ones from her native England to truly see what she's capable of. And if you're going to do that, Summerland is a great place to start. The actress gives one of the year's best performances here, in a story that tugs on your heartstrings in spite of a few general cliches.
The tale is set during WWII. Arterton plays Alice, a cranky writer who hates children. Against her will, she's forced to take in Frank (Lucas Bond), a young evacuee from war-torn London. Alice makes no attempt to hide her disdain for her guest, although she gradually warms up to him a little bit. Right now, you're probably thinking that Summerland sounds like one of those stories where a grump gets softened up by a cute kid. That isn't quite what this is, though. Through flashbacks, we learn that much of Alice's resentment comes from having broken up with her true love, Vera (Gugu Mbatha Raw), years prior. She and Frank are therefore both struggling with separation issues – he from his parents, Alice from Vera. The more those issues are revealed, the more she identifies with him, sometimes uncomfortably. It's more complicated than simply having her won over by his charms.
Rocky roads get them to that point. Even as Alice starts to like the kid, it's apparent that she doesn't want him around. A certain cruelty has a way of popping up when neither of them expects it. These are strong moments for Arterton, as she captures the way her character feels what she feels without entirely acknowledging why she feels it. That puts the boy in a tenuous position, although he's far more patient than Alice is.
Summerland takes its name from a mythical place the agnostic Alice tells Frank souls go when they pass. Her current project involves investigating a Fata Morgana phenomenon wherein people can see an island floating in the sky under specific conditions. (It's similar to the city in the sky illusion that caused a stir in China). This idea forms the core of the film, as “Summerland” represents a more hopeful future for the two characters. They look for the island, just as they look forward to a happier, less war-torn time. Writer/director Jessica Swale suggests that two things are needed to get through hardship: a belief that better days lie ahead and the support of other people.
Some of the specific plot points in the film are admittedly predictable. There are times when you'll know what's going to happen before it does. That issue is mitigated by one much less expected plot point in the last half-hour. At first, I rolled my eyes at it. Then the movie explained it in a way that actually made sense and, even better, revealed another, deeper layer to everything that has already taken place. Summerland's fundamental theme about how people can remain connected even when apart goes to a new level, leading to a finale that is both emotional and satisfying.
Arterton runs the gamut of emotions as Alice, making each one thoroughly convincing. Bond matches her energy, playing Frank as a scared kid who misses his parents but nevertheless recognizes a kindred spirit when he sees one. Penelope Wilton is in the cast, too, nicely playing the older Alice in bookend segments. The quality of the acting keeps the film chugging along during those times when you can feel a formula at work.
Thanks in large part to Arterton's beautifully nuanced portrayal of this wounded soul, Summerland is a touching feel-good story about finding love and healing.
out of four
Summerland is rated PG for thematic content, some suggestive comments, language, and smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.