The saccharine drama Summerland wastes no time establishing the prickliness of its protagonist. Upon encountering a child whining for candy at a shop counter, reclusive writer Alice (Gemma Arterton) purchases the desired chocolate—for herself. There’s a world war on, but Alice is sheltered from the storm, living a solitary life spent pecking away at her typewriter on the picturesque oceanside cliffs of southern England. When the care of young boy Frank (Lucas Bond) is thrust upon her as London children are evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz, Alice must open up to the precocious child. Much like the series of brief conflicts and surmountable obstacles throughout the film, Alice’s cold heart melts quite easily.

Intertwined with her growing affection for Frank are impressionistic flashbacks of Alice and her erstwhile lover, Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). The absence of that love fuels Alice’s initial cantankerousness, to the point that she’s known by the locals as the “beast on the beach.” She may begin her guardianship of Frank by handing him a potato, whole egg and raw meat and telling him to cook for himself, but it’s mere days until she’s forged a connection with him, largely through discussing her love of folklore and her particular focus on myths surrounding Fata Morgana mirages. In fact, the film’s title is derived from one particular myth of the pagan heaven of Summerland, which is said to be invisible except in rare instances where it appears in the sky, hovering over the sea.

While it’s easy to see Alice’s yearning for this magical place as a refuge from emotional turmoil, what’s even more apparent is that she’s creating her own oasis amid the chaos of global conflict with this new interpersonal connection with Frank. The idyllic countryside only reinforces the notion that the paradise may already be in the midst of her. An engaging but far-too-tidy third-act twist drives this idea home.

Arterton, who also gets executive producer credit, offers an impassioned performance as Alice, particularly in how she navigates challenging discussions with Frank. But in her directorial debut, Jessica Swale, who also wrote the script, too often gives her conflicts swift resolutions or simply defuses the tension before it has a chance to effectively build. For instance, despite living in a time and place where homosexuality was criminalized (the treatment of WWII hero Alan Turing comes to mind), Alice and Vera’s relationship only faced internal friction. Meanwhile, Swale heavy-handedly sets up a series of close calls that never feel all that threatening. Whenever Frank appears to be in peril—whether it’s momentarily being lost in the countryside, briefly drifting in the ocean waves or even making a treacherous journey by train back to the smoldering wreckage of London—he’s inevitably retrieved without much difficulty.

Nevertheless, the idea that bliss is within reach is particularly comforting in our pandemic-stricken and culturally turbulent era. In that way, Summerland does seem balmy at times, a feeling that’s enhanced through gauzy cinematography rife with majestic vistas bathed in sunshine. Alice and Frank are perhaps too easy to root for, and the film’s quaint sentimentalism does border on cloying, especially by the film’s euphoric conclusion. It’s a trifle, certainly, but with the world in its current state, no one should feel too guilty about indulging in Summerland’s simple pleasures.

With the world in its current state, no one should feel too guilty about indulging in its simple pleasures.
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Sugary Sweet
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