There is an anonymous saying connected to the idea of hospitality that states “hospitality is making your guest feel at home, even if you wish they were.” Oh, how true! Often hospitality is used as a source of negative sarcasm for a given location or entire group of people in one-liners like “a case of (fill-in-the-blank) hospitality,” “so much for (fill-in-the-blank) hospitality,” or “there’s nothing like (fill-in-the-blank) hospitality. Why is it, with the stereotype of their uppity, aloof, and accented air, that “English” seems to best fit for those open blanks? Reach each one and try it.
Jokes aside, manners come into play. The wrinkle is when pleasing homeliness mixes with the negative connotation of hospitality. Summerland, the feature film directorial debut of playwright Jessica Swale, emanates pleasantry around a central character who is the rude opposite. No matter how uncouth or ill-tempered Gemma Arterton’s hermetic author Alice behaves, an honorable heart shines through. That’s the narrative oil and water of this nostalgic film.
We meet the aged and frazzled Alice (Penelope Wilton of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) in the 1970s thrown off her creative flow in a fluster to chase away pesky local children who tease her and trespass around her door. That introduction echoes backwards to the 1940s of World War II to show her (Arteron), her devotion to writing, and the same adversarial actions with neighbors have been this rude and dismissive for a long time, much to the chagrin of the gossipy locals and the elder schoolmaster Mr. Sullivan (45 Years’ Tom Courtenay), a fellow intellectual of sorts and a headshaker who knows both her brilliance and her shielded capacity to care.
Any ingredient of domestic normalcy would be considered topsy-turvy for someone this mildly deranged. The desperate times of World War II bring just that in the form of a noble duty where nobility has not been present. The reclusive Alice is forced to shelter Frank During the desperate times of World II, the reclusive Alice is forced to welcome Frank (Lucas Bond of Susu), a preteen from London displaced by his entrenched mother working in a vital field and his enlisted pilot father serving overseas.
For those who need a history lesson on the British evacuee experience beyond what they remember from the opening credits scene of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, 1.5 million people were evacuated in the first wave from the constant threats of the London Blitz. Half of them were children taken in by volunteer families. The trauma experienced by those youths and separated families, plenty of which never reunited fully is well-documented. The irk for Alice is she never volunteered. She was requested specifically for Frank.
Circle back to that wavering notion of hospitality. Bereft of homely affection, Alice has the boy fend for himself as she counts down the week to hold Frank before a full family can take him in. The resilient young man makes a fast friend in Edie (Dixie Egerickx of The Secret Garden) and deals with Alice’s spite in stride. Back often by Lion Oscar nominee Volker Bertelmann’s inquisitive score, Frank’s curious spirit is disarming to the observant and forceful Alice who often strolls the Sussex seaside for creative and natural inspirations. The two begin to enjoy their shared time and carry on about a mythic heaven named after the film’s title.
In this union of unlikely kindred spirits, Summerland glazes its heartstrings. Arterton shifts from hardened disinterestedness to softened pluck in the fullest lead role she has had in years. Her unkempt Alice that never opens up to anyone begins to reveal her vibrant and disparaging history. The eager Frank (well done, young Lucas) simply listens and the amity of their relationship grows.
The written and spoken line “stories have to come from somewhere” is the central emotional anchor of Swale’s film. Where stories come from define their significance. For a boy like Frank, they more than likely come from outside imagination and familial influences. To him, his absent parents, especially his father, are unquestioned personal heroes. For the writer that is Alice, she prides herself on research for the depth of a good story. For her actual self, though, the story sources are the pains and truths of life experiences.
Seen in flashback, previous Swale stage muse (Neil Gwynn) Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s well-to-do Vera was the origin of Alice’s present pain. The two were closeted lovers over a decade prior in a frowned upon era for such romance. With these unearthed layers of revelation, Summerland elevates an underlying discourse of the human condition challenged by race, gender, and orientation.
Performance is paramount for Jessica Swale. She has imbued rich traits into these characters requiring dramatic dedication. The prickly aforementioned social challenges are handled with unquestioned grace by Arteron and Mbatha-Raw in their shared scenes. The balance of the past and present in Summerland is a challenge. Swale’s film is pensive in many places and proud in many others, respectfully so, yet with difficult transitions of meshed tones. The swing from formative frolic brightened by the children to the fading luster of the lost loves and the looming war is a precarious course. What wins out are the tear ducts squeezed when that third lesson keeps growing in connection and significance.