Tuesday 4 August 2020

Lost horizons: "Summerland"

With life returning to cinemas, however briefly, the British film industry gears up once again, like a backbench MP farting himself awake after a heavy lunch of kippers and port. Where Make Up could be said to represent the forward-facing avant-garde, Summerland issues from the same industry's fustier Downton branch: this is a sundappled WW2 caper, pie-eyed on homebrewed Blitz spirit, which features mild peril, milder swearing (Penelope Wilton tells some kids to bugger off) and Gemma "Hockey Sticks" Arterton in cosy knitwear sparing tousle-haired foundlings from the Nazis. Its structure of prettily shot, well-furnished flashbacks within prettily shot, well-furnished flashbacks may just make it ideal scheduling for this moment: after fifteen minutes of it, you may forget the whole 21st century was a thing, let alone the Coronavirus. Yet the more of these films I see - and there was one a week up to March 2020 - the more convinced I become that a sizeable part of this industry was frozen in time in 1945, one of the many reasons the country is in the shape it is today. Rather than interrogate the myths and legends of wartime heroism and sacrifice, as our French cousins have in a run of varied fictions and documentaries, British creatives keep surrendering meekly to them, determined not to kick up too much in the way of fuss. "Stories have to come from somewhere," reads the epigraph of the book the heroine compiles over the course of Summerland - to which I found myself retorting: yes, but so many in the same middling vein from the same damn period?

This time round, it's 1940, and we're on a picturesque stretch of the South Coast, where Arterton's resolutely single writer Alice Lamb is interrupted mid-composition of her latest opus (something about floating castles) by a knock at the door and a lady from the War Office insisting she take in a young boy, Frank (Lucas Bond), as a refugee - a development she had no prior knowledge of because she's the kind of maverick who doesn't read her own post. This being that kind of film, woman and boy spend the next hour or so bonding, and as Alice relaxes into renewed companionship, details emerge as to why she's been such a solitary grump. Here, at least, writer-director Jessica Swale begins to angle towards mild subversion. Firstly, it's typically been reclusive, miserly, soul-sick men - the descendants of Silas Marner - who've had their hearts and cockles warmed by an adorable kid: think Hugh Grant in About a Boy, Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa, or any of the central trio in Three Men and a Baby. Secondly, the reason for Alice's grumpiness is revealed in those prettily shot, well-furnished flashbacks: back in the Roaring Twenties, our heroine had a brief Sapphic encounter with Gugu Mbatha-Raw's socialite Vera - and I think we can both agree that if you had any version of Gugu Mbatha-Raw in your life, and then no longer had Gugu Mbatha-Raw in your life, you'd be grumpy, too. (I found myself getting grumpier the further away Summerland drifted from the flashbacks in which the actress appears.)

So, OK, you tell yourself, it's doing something a little bit different - but it's doing that within a fundamentally hidebound form, one that generally insists on watering everything down for optimal Sunday-teatime viewing. The most Swale carves out for herself here is maybe a toe's worth of wiggle room; my suspicion was that this project began life as a far tougher, pricklier story, and was gradually fed through the cookie cutter by producers keen to generate more of that Their Finest moolah. For starters, Alice and Vera's emerges as a very chaste love: it's swimming in underskirts, a kiss you don't see lest it scandalise somebody's Aunt Beryl, and some post-coital slumming in one of Theresa May's wheatfields. (Ninety minutes of this mooning couldn't match the charge of one glance in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.) It's brought to an end, almost as soon as it begins, not by prevailing attitudes, but a difference of opinion over parenting, intended to make the business with the refugee lad more poignant. The former would surely have been more credible, given the stakes Swale sets out (an interracial, same-sex relationship? In the Twenties' economy?); any such break-up could have provided timely comment on how conservatism stifles and shuts out at least as much as it sustains. Instead, Summerland encases a very 2020 relationship dilemma in a gleaming soap bubble and floats it backwards eighty years, hoping it won't pop along the way. Alice and Vera's story might have made for a British equivalent of Jeff Nichols' very fine Loving, an examination of the worst prejudices of the past that made the love at its centre appear all the more miraculous; perked up and jollied along as it has been, it becomes more or less entirely unbelievable.

The pity is that both Mbatha-Raw and Arterton (who, in all fairness, continues to grow on me as a performer: those St. Trinian's redos were an exceptionally bad first impression she managed to overcome) play the notes they've been handed with care and skill. But they're minor notes in the tweest of symphonies, and they get scattered to the wind as the film snuggles into the cushioned comfort of its 1940s. (The War itself is barely felt, save as a couple of headlines outside the village shop, and a near-miss during the Blitz: the film's been fine-tuned to prioritise escapism above all else.) Here, Summerland settles for being wholly pleasant, the ever-welcome Tom Courtenay shuffling by from time to time as the local schoolmaster, until a late twist that suddenly renders everyone frenetic in the extreme. Just from a pacing perspective, the film is patently cuckoo: nothing happens for an hour, and then everything happens at once. (Again, you wonder: was there a longer cut that better integrated this kerfuffle?) Well, perhaps audiences now feel so starved for signs of the outside world that they'll settle for a film that is almost all sightseeing - and we should credit the gifted DoP Laurie Rose on this point: it is an achievement to make a picture this pretty, and to have spent this much time on the Dover-Folkestone border without encountering Nigel Farage trying to shoo away waves of migrants singlehandedly like a Barbour-jacketed King C(a)nut(e). Yet that romanticised vision is Summerland's issue in a cnut-shell: any 2020 release that invites us to look upon Britain as a just, blossoming and fruitful land is as much optical illusion as Alice's castles in the sky.

Summerland is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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