‘Sum­mer­land’ has a fa­mil­iar look, with an orig­i­nal vibe

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINM­ENT - BY LIND­SEY BAHR

‘Sum­mer­land” might look like some­thing you’ve seen be­fore: a scenic story about a child who must leave Lon­don dur­ing the war and take up shel­ter with a re­luc­tant care­giver. But while it is com­fort­ingly fa­mil­iar in many ways, and a lit­tle cliche and over­wrought in oth­ers, it also has a mod­ern edge and bite to it that keeps it novel enough to sus­tain in­ter­est.

That moder­nity is credit to writer-di­rec­tor Jes­sica Swale, a Bri­tish the­ater di­rec­tor and play­wright, who with “Sum­mer­land” makes a noteworthy en­try into the world of film. With well-drawn char­ac­ters and a sur­pris­ing scope, the story feels like it’s been adapted from a novel (a com­pli­ment). And with help from cin­e­matog­ra­pher Lau­rie Rose, “Sum­mer­land” cap­tures three eras in a small sea­side town with breath­tak­ing beauty.

The film opens in the 1970s with Alice Lamb (Pene­lope Wil­ton) scold­ing some lo­cal chil­dren for in­ter­rupt­ing her work. Alice has not just aged into a per­son who is un­sym­pa­thetic to chil­dren, though. “Sum­mer­land” quickly cuts back some 30 years to Alice (now Gemma Arter­ton), in the same house, at the same type­writer and still yelling at chil­dren who dis­turb the quiet. A few scenes later, she even takes some candy away from a lo­cal kid. (Tech­ni­cally she buys it when the child and her mother don’t have enough, but the com­i­cally heart­less act leaves the mother and store­keeper shocked and the child in tears.)

Suf­fice it to say, it comes as a shock when a young school­boy, Frank (Lu­cas Bond), shows up at her steps ex­pect­ing shel­ter af­ter be­ing evac­u­ated from Lon­don. Alice de­mands that dif­fer­ent ac­com­mo­da­tions are made for the boy, whose fa­ther is fight­ing and whose mother re­mains in Lon­don. It will come as no sur­prise that the two start to de­velop a bond soon enough, over his model planes and her aca­demic work in mythol­ogy. Alice, it turns out, is a bit like a child her­self, dreamy and naively self­ish, mak­ing her a per­fect com­pan­ion to Frank. The vi­cious­ness dis­played at the be­gin­ning dis­si­pates pretty quickly, which might come across as in­au­then­tic to some, but the story does start to re­veal why chil­dren an­noy her so.

“Sum­mer­land” oc­ca­sion­ally (and some­what clunkily) cuts back a few years be­fore the war, to show that Alice wasn’t al­ways a loner. In fact, she had a very pic­turesque ro­mance with a woman, Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who breaks Alice’s heart when she leaves to have chil­dren. The flash­backs al­low the pro­duc­tion de­sign and hair and makeup team to dab­ble in some jol­lier looks than wartime in­vites, and Arter­ton and Mbatha-Raw look es­pe­cially fab­u­lous in their flap­per wares. The di­rec­tor’s af­fec­tion for the pair is clear: Both ac­tors starred in the ti­tle role in Swale’s play “Nell Gwynn.” Here, Alice nat­u­rally gets more to do — it’s her story — but you do come away wish­ing for more MbathaRaw as well.

That’s all very nice, but what’s it got to do with Alice in the war and in the ’70s? Well, fair warn­ing, the threads do come to­gether and far too neatly. But the charms of “Sum­mer­land” aren’t in its plot. They’re in the sen­ti­ment, which is too good-hearted to be cyn­i­cal about, and the char­ac­ters. Tom Courte­nay gets a lovely role as the school’s head­mas­ter, and the tiny Dixie Eg­er­ickx steals scenes as Frank’s spir­ited friend Edie.

“Sum­mer­land” even feels a lit­tle res­o­nant in the cur­rent mo­ment. Quar­an­tine doesn’t com­pare to wartime sac­ri­fices in the least, of course, and yet there is some­thing un­de­ni­ably mov­ing about watch­ing a hope­ful and kind film like “Sum­mer­land” right now.

IFC FILMS

A reclu­sive writer (Gemma Arter­ton) takes in a boy (Lu­cas Bond) who needs a home dur­ing World War II in “Sum­mer­land.”

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