A movie should have only so many tinkly piano arrangements in its score.
Overdose on these saccharine sounds, and you’re veering into Harlequin romance turf. Or worse.
“Summerland” commits that sonic sin among other transgressions. If not for a bravura lead turn the film might be a forgettable, albeit well-intentioned, portrait of bigotry and healing.
Gemma Arterton stars as Alice, a woman so foul tempered the neighborhood boys stuff her mailbox slot with dirt and debris. You could blame the times, perhaps. The story is set in Southern England during World War II, and cities like London are under attack from German war planes.
That means some of Alice’s fellow citizens are taking in “evacuees,” children temporarily abandoned by parents fighting the war effort or made casualties from it.
Now, it’s Alice’s turn, and she’d rather do anything else than accept young Frank (Lucas Bond) into her home. The lad is sweet and patient, but the irascible Alice wants to pound away on her typewriter with zero distractions.
It’s not a spoiler to say Alice eventually sweetens to Frank’s presence, and through a series of flashbacks we learn why she’s so bitter about, well, everything. Meet Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the love of Alice’s life.
Clearly something went awry, and we suffer through scenes so sticky sweet they’d make a Hallmark executive blush.
And that hints at the bigger issues plaguing “Summerland.” The story’s edges have been sanded to a dull, uncomplicated surface, and writer/director Jessica Swale’s screenplay telegraphs every emotion. Yes, those precious piano strains grate on us, but how else would you score these sequences?
The Alice/Vera romance plays out like a rom-com parody, and the cultural tells of their forbidden love can be worse — even if the interracial element never gets mentioned. Watching an oblivious (woke?) child cheer Alice up is to see modern mores grafted onto a sequence set 75-plus years ago.
Yet we care, at least a little, because Arterton won’t have it any other way. The actress commits fully to the role, and seeing her register the pain and pleasure bullet pointed by the script is to watch a star rise miles above the material.
Swale deserves credit for not lecturing us about the era’s racial and sexual prejudices, but that delicate touch could have addressed the issues in a more satisfying fashion.
Even the Alice/Frank connection, which understandably takes time to build, is marred by plot contrivances that sap it of its good will.
There’s a big ol’ twist deep into the movie, and while it makes sense on a certain level it’s also another highly manipulative note, the boldest of the film.
Just throw it on the pile, eh?
HiT or Miss: “Summerland” can be beautiful at times, and the romantic longing at its core can’t help but resonate. The rest is pure manipulation, and second rate at that.
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