The Adelaide 2020 British Film Festival begins on November 10 and its flagship film, Jessica Swale’s directorial debut, Summerland, is a sensitively told story of loss and redemption, reminiscent of films such as John Boorman’s 1987 homefront war rumination, Hope & Glory.
Set in the lush and picturesque surrounds of the Sussex and Kent coastline during the Blitz of 1940-41, the film employs some familiar stereotypical tropes of British historical storytelling but certainly has some original twists on those old approaches which prevent dismissing it as mere pastiche.
The film was both written and directed by the highly regarded British playwright Swales, who has recently emerged as one of the most feted of the young wunderkind of the London theatre world.
Summerland begins in 1975, where an elderly woman appears to be having some issues with completing a typed manuscript, the plot of which is then revealed to us through her eyes in an extended flashback sequence.
The story revolves around her, Alice Lamb, in her early adult years. An intense young woman, she lives alone in a cottage by the sea, and is singularly focused on completing her academic thesis which is based upon an exploration of the origins of ancient folk tales. Her concern is primarily with those tales that have originated from the Arthurian stories of Morgan Le Fay, the powerful sorceress, which connect her to the numerous historical accounts of the ‘Fata Morgana’ phenomena, a mystical vision which was subsequently named after her.
This particular optical illusion, or mirage, occurs when specific atmospheric conditions cause distant objects to be ‘projected’ into the sky as if they are floating in air.
And as many will quickly realise, these ‘islands in the sky’ soon become very significant to the characters in the tale. As Lamb strives to debunk the magical elements that have been attached to the origins of these strange visions over the centuries, she is forced to acknowledge their powerful, spiritual non-scientific connotations as events unfold.
The local residents of Lamb’s village all treat the young academic with suspicion due to her tendency to be abrupt, aloof and unsociable in her dealings with them , as well as their ignorance of, and unease with, the subject she has chosen as her research focus.
The local kids believe her to be a witch and heckle and harass her from a distance whenever they get the chance. No-one has any idea that she is actually fighting through the pain of a broken heart brought about by the fact her partner had left her, pre-war, to live alone, succumbing to an irresistible desire to be a mother which for her had overpowered any possibility of forging a shared life with Alice.
Into this situation comes Frank, a young boy who is evacuated from London to ride out the rest of the war away from the immediate threat of his home being levelled by a German bomb. Alice has been chosen to ‘do her duty’ and look after the boy and she is reluctantly forced to take him into her home because Frank’s mother, Vera, is at a secret location working for the War Ministry, and his father is away flying missions for the Royal Air Force, so neither are able to keep their son safe in the face of the enemy’s bombing blitz.
The core of the film, from this point, centres on the growing bond between Alice and the young Frank and the way they both have to deal with the life-changing revelations that confront each of them as they begin to learn more about each other.
Former Bond girl, Gemma Arterton, plays Alice and her performance is beautifully nuanced and totally compelling as the damaged young writer who slowly allows the young boy into her life and affections.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who coincidentally stars in Misbehaviour, another of this year’s Festival’s potential highlights, also shines in her role as Alice’s lost love.
Swales may even have written these roles with these two actresses in mind, as both women had worked with the director previously, with Arterton assuming the title role in Swales’ award winning play, Nell Gwynn, in its West End run directly after Mbatha-Raw had finished up playing the same role in its debut season at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
Lucas Bond, who plays young Fred, is a natural and is convincing and fully at ease on the big screen In many ways, however, he is upstaged in a number of scenes by Dixie Egerickx, who plays the role of his young female schoolmate, Edie – a self-declared ‘individualist’ – who provides a beautifully balanced and believable performance of a young girl testing her courage and questioning her beliefs as she negotiates the complexities of her friendship with Frank and his unnerving guardian.
Cameos from screen stalwarts, Sir Tom Courtenay and Sian Phillips, as the warm-hearted school principal, Mr Sullivan, and Edie’s defensively bellicose grandmother, respectively, add that familiar touch which ties this film to a long line of similarly big-hearted films from the British film industry’s past.
At the end of the preview screening a burst of spontaneous applause arose from the darkness of the cinema stalls suggesting that, whilst this film does precariously skirt the boundary between sentimentality and sincerity on occasion, Summerland should make an affective emotional impression on most people who choose to see it.
Summerland screens as part of the 2020 British Film Festival at the Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas on the following dates:
Saturday 14 November at 8:45pm
Tuesday 17 November at 6:15pm
Thursday 19 November at 8:40pm
Friday 27 November at 6:15pm
For all other 2020 British Film Festival details and screening dates & times visit the official site here: 2020 British Film Festival