Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Sentiment aside, there is real charm at work here, with beautifully photographed locations and good chemistry between the leads."

During the Second World War, around one and a half million people, most of them children, were evacuated from London to keep them safe from bombing raids. Children found themselves staying with strangers all around the UK. Their experiences varied enormously. Some of them were warmly welcomed. Some of them were not.

Alice (Gemma Arterton) lives alone in a rambling house on the south coast of England and makes her living as a writer and researcher - something which necessitates long hours of work. The last thing she wants is a child hanging around the house, demanding attention and getting in the way. When young Frank (Lucas Bond) arrives, she's counting down the hours until she can get rid of him. In the face of this - and the pre-existing stress of being separated from his parents - the boy copes remarkably well, settling in at the local school and making a friend there - but it's not until he takes an interest in the folklore that Alice studies that their relationship begins to thaw.

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Nobody watching this is going to be convinced by Alice's insistence that she'll never care about the child, and this is a film designed to please rather than to challenge expectations, but there's more going on than first meets the eye and it's by developing its secondary themes that it finds substance and additional emotional dimensions. Alice is one of those characters whose resistance to affection stems from disappointment in her past, and it soon emerges that this is also connected to her social isolation - some people in the local community are hostile towards her because she's a lesbian. The local vicar (Tom Courtenay), however, sees things differently, accepting her for who she is, and gently manipulates events to try to bring her back into the fold.

There's a great deal of sentimentality here, with swelling music, soft focus flashbacks and the works, which sometimes threatens to overwhelm the actors. Comedic moments in the film occasionally overstep the line as well, making the characters less convincing, but elsewhere the comedy works well, warm-hearted for the most part and just occasionally, playfully dark. This helps to balance the angst in the romantic scenes featuring Alice and her lost love (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

Sentiment aside, there is real charm at work here, with beautifully photographed locations (one dodgy bit of CGI excepted) and good chemistry between the leads. Writer/director Jessica Swale communicates the pain of living as an outsider in a deeply prejudiced society - complicating the Golden Age narratives in which the period, war aside, is frequently framed - without being preachy or distracting overmuch from other parts of the story. The idea of Summerland - the Celtic land of the dead, occasionally visible to the living - nicely complements this balance of tragedy and joy. If you're looking for a film that will sweep you up and leave you feeling better about life, this is one of your best options this summer.

Reviewed on: 27 Jul 2020
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A lonely writer faces up to past heartbreak during the Second World War.
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Director: Jessica Swale

Writer: Jessica Swale

Starring: Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lucas Bond, Dixie Egerickx, Sîan Phillips

Year: 2020

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: UK


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