‘Summerland’: The World of an Isolated Writer Is Upended in Jessica Swale’s Sentimental Period Drama

The existence of a writer can often be an isolated one, and Alice Bloom (Gemma Arterton), the heroine of the nostalgic wartime drama “Summerland,” seems to prefer it that way. When we first meet Alice, around 1975 (played by Penelope Wilton), she’s plugging away at her typewriter, annoyed by some local kids who knock on her door. Flashback to 30 years earlier, she’s pretty much the same. A single woman in her thirties, Alice seems content with living out her days alone with her work and her thoughts, but all this changes when a young boy, Frank (Lucas Bond), an evacuee from London, turns up at her doorstep. 

“Summerland” was written and directed by acclaimed British playwright and theater director Jessica Swale. Swale recently spoke with Entertainment Voice about her experience in making her first feature. The story came from scratch as opposed to being based on an actual person or specific event. “It was just a sense of wanting to explore what cinema could do, and thinking about how much stories can transport us somewhere and help us escape from reality, and how much imagination can do that, and that’s a huge theme of the film.”

Although Alice initially resents being saddled with a kid, albeit temporarily — supposedly, the government has ordered that she be responsible for Frank while his father serves in the military and his mother works for the ministry — he eventually gets her to let down her walls. They both have a sense of wonder, and through him, she recaptures some of her youthful innocence, something that’s quite wondrous to behold.

The theme of magic is important in the story, as both Alice and Frank are interested in folklore, especially the mythical kingdom of Summerland. Like Alice, Swale is a writer who is connected to nature, and Brexit, of all things, inspired her to dig deep and explore what it means to be British.

“I was feeling quite uncomfortable about the notion of Englishness. I felt like it’s somehow connected to a sense of patriotism or racism, so I wanted to look at what was underneath all that and what I actually loved about this country, which is about the earth and the soil and the stories, and the fact that people have been here on the island for such a long time, telling stories and being a community. The more you start reading about the folklore, the more sexy and cool and intriguing it is.”

Arterton and promising newcomer Bond have a fun chemistry, and the actress is absolutely delightful to watch, even when Alice is at her most cantankerous, such as when she buys a chocolate bar in front of a pouting child whose mother is short on rations. Even viewers who cannot relate to her introvertedness, which borders on misanthropy at times, can admire her drive and frankness.

“I respect her a lot because she is a woman who is very, very truthful and behaves the way she wants to behave, and she doesn’t really take any flack from anybody,” said Swale. “I hope I’m not as much as a hermit as a writer as she is, but I do understand, as someone who cares deeply about their work, that if people interrupt you when you’re in the flow, when you’re in the middle of writing, you do want to tell them to stuff it… She’s very ambitious for a woman at that time. I love her, and sometimes I fantasize about what I would say to people if there were no consequences and you could really speak your mind.”

Swale went on to praise Arterton for her humility and generosity, and Bond for his energy and curious nature. The pair bonded both on the set and off, and this is especially evident in the more emotionally-charged scenes, particularly when in which Alice admits to having had been in love with a woman, and he assures her that he doesn’t see anything wrong with that. Flashbacks throughout the film tell the story of Alice’s star-crossed love affair with her college girlfriend Vera (the always radiant Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and through this relationship we see another side of Alice and come to understand her better. 

“I’m really glad to have told that story, because I feel really strongly, as a filmmaker, that the stories that we tell on screen ought to reflect the diversity of the communities that we live in, whether that’s to do with gender or sexuality or race. I don’t want to make whitewashed films…”

Swale continued, “The fact that they were two women who fell in love with each other, to be honest, wasn’t something that I set out to do with an agenda. It happened because it seemed like the best way to tell that story. It’s really been wonderful; it’s coming out and beginning to be embraced by the gay community.”

Overall, “Summerland” is an universal story. The relationship between Alice and Vera initially ends due to Vera having wants and needs that Alice cannot fulfill, and it’s very relatable and heartbreaking to watch transpire. Years later, up until the point Frank intrudes on her solitude, Alice is so absorbed in her own world that even the war seems to barely impact her life, although this is partly due to her geographical location in an idyllic little Kent town. 

“I didn’t want to make a war film at all,” admitted Swale. “The war is very much something that Alice removes from her life, in the same way that she removes the community.” Still, the writer/director immersed herself in research about that period, and learned the most about daily life during WWII from a wise source, her own grandmother.

At the end of the day, “Summerland” is the story of an intelligent and fiercely independent woman making her way, and this theme of women’s empowerment extended to the production, as Swale assembled a crew that was half female. “Gemma said this morning it’s the first film she’s worked on that has managed 50 percent women, and there’s just something about the atmosphere that that creates, when you don’t have boys’ teams and girls’ teams. Our lighting crew probably had more women in it than men, interestingly. It just meant that everybody bonded straight away and there was no division across the country, which was just a joy.”

Summerland” releases July 31 on VOD.