Jessica Swale’s World War II melodrama Summerland begins with an old woman at a typewriter. Soon enough we’re whisked back several decades to the same woman at a typewriter, still grumpy, still writing, but young and played by Gemma Arterton. It declares itself as that type of movie. You know, a British World War II film with not one, but two flashback structures, and a sweeping romance. And yet. It’s not quite what we’ve come to expect.
Arterton plays Alice Lamb, a woman on her way to being an old maid who spends her days writing analysis of folklore and getting into conflicts with the local children like the witch they imagine her to be. She’s haunted by memories of Vera, her love from the past played with confidence and charm by Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the too-brief flashbacks. The couple broke up because Vera wanted children and Alice now seems content to live in her work and her memories.
But there is a war! And everybody must do their part. This arrives on Alice’s doorstep in the form of Frank, a little boy whose dad is off fighting and mom is working in the increasingly dangerous London. Most of the film is not spent on Alice and Vera’s romance, but rather Alice forming a bond with this child and eventually confronting her past. This is a melodrama and with that comes poetic metaphors and big dramatic twists. It’s sometimes corny, but that’s at all times the point.
The film never mentions race and its queerness is relegated to some very family friendly kissing and brief mentions of society not approving. This is not a film specifically about a white woman in love with a Black woman in 1920s and 1940s England. The concerns of its straight white woman writer/director have more to do with the decision whether to have children and the process of moving through grief. And that is okay. Not every queer film needs to be a queer film. There is charm to be had in watching two phenomenally talented straight actresses play out a lesbian relationship in the kind of wartime melodrama that is so often straight and white.
If the film is elevated beyond its normative escapist charms, that arrives in its actors. Mbatha-Raw is given much too little to do and yet her movie star screen presence left me longing for the flashbacks with the same fervor that Alice longs for her memories. And Arterton gives a layered performance that’s both grounded in reality and in the genre she’s working within. She knows when to be subtle and when to lean into melodrama. It’s some of Arterton’s best work and that’s increasingly high praise to give.
Many a gay viewer will likely be charmed by this San Junipero meets Vita Sackville-West fanfic casting decision. But beyond playing gay I think something else is worth emphasizing about these two performers — they consistently work with women directors. In 2014 — when her star was rising with blockbusters like Prince of Persia: Sands of Times and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters — Gemma Arterton shifted her role choices and went on to make eight feature films/limited series with women directors. And Gugu Mbatha-Raw has held this same commitment since the very beginning of her career. In addition to working with a variety of women in her episodic work, Mbatha-Raw has made twelve (!!) feature films with women directors. These numbers are far from usual. This shows a consistent effort to support women filmmakers and support some — like Jessica Swale — on their first feature. I’m not sure how I feel about straight actors playing gay roles, but I do know that these two straight actors have a fan in me forever due to their talent and their principles.
Eventually Summerland makes it clear why we meet Alice as an old woman. The film could not be content with anything but a total happily-ever-after ending — and that means finding out what the next decades bring. If you’re the kind of gay who is as tired of melancholy endings as you are tragic endings, then trust that you’ll be very pleased.
This isn’t the gayest film or the deepest film but it’s clear about its goals. It sets out to be an escapist World War II melodrama and it succeeds. Could it have been a better film if Mbatha-Raw had more screentime or if the realities of the era were explored more thoroughly? Sure. But life during wartime is bleak. Maybe all you need right now is a good cry and a big smile.
I won’t judge if you won’t.