Summerland the Living is Easy

Summerland (Jessica Swale, 2020)

It must be the end of the world — this is the second first time female directed lesbian themed film I’ve seen this week…

This is the better of the two, but perhaps that’s as much the strength of the cast as the material. I’d noticed something early on, then something else later, and thought, Oh… that’s the twist.

A twist only maintained by the age-old device of letters goung astray, I suspect.

But it was.

In the framing device, we have an old woman, Penelope Wilton, hammering away at a keyboard in 1975, disturbed by two children knocking at the door. She’s rude to them…

… as she would have been nearly forty years earlier, as she was already the crazy woman who lives alone in a cottage on the beach near to Dover or Ramsgate. Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton) is a writer on Fortean phenomena, such as visions of floating cities, and wants to be left along. In particular, she doesn’t want to take in an evacuee, Frank (Lucas Bond), as she wants to be alone.

Inevitably she softens, and even drops hints about her one great love, Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), not seen since the 1920s, a woman who wanted to be a novelist. And Frank even helps her in looking for an illusion, which she suspects could take place over Ramsgate.

It’s a sweet story, and I pondered if Hope Mirrlees and Jane Harrison might have been a jumping off point, with Arterton better served by the script than Mbatha-Raw, with splendid splenetic misanthropy. Lucas Bond is utterly compelling, whilst Dixie Egerickx as Edie, Frank’s reluctant schoolfriend works well as younger version of Alice, heading for her own kind of misanthropy. (Spoiler: we don’t, as far as I can tell, know what happens to her.)

The rest of the village is a mix and match of archetypes from the kind of rural historical dramas we get on BBC1 on Sunday nights — but Tom Courtenay steals every scene he is in as the headmaster. I keep forgetting about him — he and James Bolam are about the last British male actors of their generation, who was splendid back in 45 Years.

Swale comes from theatre — she wrote Nell Gwynn, which starred Mbatha-Raw at The Globe and Arterton in the West End (and Arterton exec produces) — and this feels like it avoids what could have been a talky, stagy piece. I’m not quite sure the flashbacks to the 1920s work as well as they might. There is at least one moment of visionary beauty, but the moments of crisis don’t quite work, nor do transitions between cliff top and beach.

Meanwhile, whilst you may well think that’s Pegwell Bay, filming seems to have been in Eastbourne. Kent, I think, is necessary for the optical illusion to work — it’s apparently Herstmonceux Castle rather than the Kingsgate I’d assumed. Chatham Dockyard were also used, apparently.

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