Summerland PG, 98 minutes, 3 stars
British playwright and theatre director Jessica Swale makes an impressive film debut as a writer and director with Summerland. It's not a classic, but it's well made, looks good, and has an excellent cast, all of which compensate for a certain amount of familiarity and predictability.
The film is structured with flashbacks within flashbacks, but while that might sound complicated, it's easy enough to keep track of what's happening and when. The problem is it fragments things at times and the action during the earliest time period doesn't feel like it's given enough weight.
The main action is set during World War II in one of those British villages we've seen in other films - cosy, gossipy, insular. Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton) is the local eccentric, a sharp-tongued, self-centred recluse who spends most of her time at home and is the subject of rumours - why is she not married? is she a witch? - and a target of torment by local children.
Alice had forgotten she had volunteered to take in a young evacuee from the Blitz and does so reluctantly and on the proviso that it won't be for long. Not only does she not like children but she is busy with her research into folklore, forsaking the present and people for the past and mythology.
Her new charge, Frank (Lucas Bond), whose father is an air force pilot, is a bright, sweet, high-spirited child, but Alice grumpily treats him like an unwelcome intruder. He has to remind her he doesn't know where his new school is, so she is forced to take him, where he is welcomed by the kindly headmaster (veteran Tom Courtenay) and makes a friend.
If you think Alice is going to warm towards Frank, you're right but the process takes time and has its bumps, which is realistic given her established character. His interest in her work thaws her somewhat - she explains Fata Morgana imagery to him and tells him about Summerland, the place where Wiccans believed they went after they died.
Alice, an atheist and cynic, doesn't believe in this or anything supernatural, although she admits "stories have to come from somewhere".
Since she is not accustomed to children, Alice makes some very poor decisions - again, there are reasons for this, given who she is, but it's frustrating. Alice is a bit of a pill, frankly, but Arterton's committed performance means the character is always interesting to watch even when she's at her most irritating and selfish. Bond is appealing and plays off her well, and the other actors, including the always welcome Courtenay, are good, though they have less to do.
It's no spoiler to say there are flashbacks that fill in some of Alice's backstory and help explain her. While at university, she fell in love with Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) but their relationship eventually ended. These scenes are brief and, apart from one scene where Alice is excluded from a family event, don't seem to capture the challenges a lesbian couple would have faced. There's nothing graphic to frighten the horses.
The movie looks beautiful - the scenery, especially the cliffs and coastal views, is stunning and well photographed by Laurie Rose, although the handheld camera work is sometimes distracting.
There's a twist towards the end that will seem either emotionally satisfying or contrived and annoying. I had figured it out to some extent and didn't mind it as much as I thought I would.
Summerland is a good-looking, well acted and intimately scaled period drama that's satisfying without being surprising. It's a promising debut from Swale - will she continue to work in film or return to the theatre? Or, as many writers and directors have done and continue to do, straddle both? We can only wait and see.