Spectacular locations on the southeast coast of England and a handful of fine performances are the best that can be said for “Summerland,” but that’s still better than most. The film, the writing-directing debut of British playwright Jessica Swale, is a World War II home-front drama that’s eccentric on the surface, conventional beneath, and an easy watch. It arrives on VOD platforms this week.
Despite being in a Bond film (“Quantum of Solace,” 2008) and holding down the 2016 critical favorite “Their Finest,” Gemma Arterton remains relatively unknown in this country. “Summerland” doesn’t stand to change that, unfortunately (although a rumored Dusty Springfield biopic might). The actress is cast as Alice Lamb, a bitter pill of a writer living in solitude in the Kentish countryside. She doesn’t like anybody and nobody likes her, so it’s a surprise when a young evacuee from the London Blitz is assigned to her home. This is Frank (Lucas Bond), and he’s old enough to take the measure of this strange, irascible creature and give as good as he gets.
There will be bonding – oh, yes, there will be bonding – but “Summerland,” to its credit, takes its time getting there and Arterton keeps her character interestingly rude for as long as she can. Flashbacks to a past romance with a London socialite (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, giving elegance to an underwritten part) go some way to explaining why Alice has exiled herself from the local community. The church ladies sniff and stare, and schoolboys put nasty things in her mail slot, but dear old Tom Courtenay is on hand as the revered village elder, and he’s in her corner.
Bond is very good as the boy, a misfit himself but graced with common sense and a curiosity about other people. Swale’s script avoids painting him as an innocent, and as a director she gets a fantastic supporting performance from Dixie Egerickx as a tart-tongued schoolmate of Frank’s. It’s the characters that intrigue this filmmaker, by which I mean the smaller roles as well as the odd ducks in the lead. Swale is also a natural at conjuring specifics of time and place. “Summerland” is lovely to look at (Laurie Rose shot it) but the re-creation of this peaceable, anxious corner of 1941 Britain comes from an artistic sensibility capable of imagining the whole.
Toward the end of “Summerland,” there’s a dramatic revelation that seems a step too far — it makes sense once you think about it, but you do have to think about it, and it kicks you out of the movie. Around the same time, the congenial astringency of the central relationship takes a turn for the sentimental, and Swale doesn’t yet have the skill to pull it off without cinematic gauze and goo. The movie’s a bit like the mirages of castles far out at sea — tricks of atmosphere, cloud, and light — that Alice and her ward spy from the coast and that give Swale her title. “Summerland” briefly comes together, takes beguiling shape, and dissipates with the lingering scent of agreeable cliché.
Written and directed by Jessica Swale. Starring Gemma Arterton, Lucas Bond, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Courtenay. Available on cable systems and streaming platforms. 99 minutes. PG (thematic content, some suggestive comments, language, smoking).