Summerland review – Gemma Arterton shines in a pleasant but airy period piece

Gemma Arterton is brilliant as a writer wrestling with her own past in an otherwise underwhelming and all too familiar WWII drama

Capturing the small-town frustration of the British countryside and the daydreaming effervescence of a fleeting lost love, Summerland floats, and lingers on the past. We flit between the present-day, as Alice, a writer, reflects on the stories she's written about her life lived in a seaside town in the aftermath of World War II, and how that quiet existence was uprooted by the arrival of a young boy.

This boy is Frank, a child evacuated from London where it is considered unsafe, who turns up on Alice’s doorstep uninvited. What ensues is a familiar prickly relationship that grows and later softens as the two spend more time together. Gemma Arterton plays Alice with spiky defensiveness opposite Lucas Bond’s innocence as Frank, and soon Alice’s resentment is made clearer as memories of her life as a younger woman come back to the fore.

The story offers glimpses of Alice’s student romance with Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), presented in whispered memories that often frame only the two women in secret. They have a hazy quality to them, but they're also slippery in a way that makes them difficult to latch onto as a viewer. The portrayal of Alice as a sharp, often snappy writer – brilliantly played by Arterton – is the one that feels more tangible, but it is in moments of greater vulnerability that the film’s emotions are made more credible.

The story between Alice and Frank takes a turn as the threat looming over the country closes in, at which point both storylines in Alice’s life finally start to intersect. Considering that so little happens in the seaside town usually, it does seem inevitable that Alice’s secrets will see the light sooner or later.

It’s all directed by filmmaker Jessica Swale with a light touch, embracing the wide open spaces and calm atmosphere of the British countryside. But it's a vision with a tendency to feel somewhat airy, or familiar, despite years of feelings and repressed desires still allegedly being at stake.

Summerland tells a story of the families we choose, the ways that love can save lives over years, and how the most transcendent life experiences can take place in the most mundane of settings. It hits all the right notes on paper, and is pleasant enough in practice, yet it might have felt more evocative on the page, read on a seaside escape, your mind filling in the gaps with your own pin-sharp memories rather than these admittedly underwhelming ones.

Summerland is released in select UK cinemas from July 31.

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