Thursday, July 30, 2020

A story that yields to sentiment

Take it as a tribute to actress Gemma Arterton that a movie as contrived and maudlin as Summerland could be even the least bit watchable. Theater director Jessica Swale makes her big-screen debut with a story about an academic writer (Arterton) living in a remote coastal town in England.  Set mostly in the 1940s, the story begins in earnest when Arterton's Alice Lamb is taken by surprise: An escort brings a boy (Lucas Bond) to her home. The reclusive, acerbic Lamb has no interest in the boy who has been shipped from London as part of a program to save the city's children from the Blitz.  Eventually, Alice warms to the boy and him to her with Arterton doing her best to keep Alice from becoming a one-note character. As the story proceeds, we see flashbacks to a time when Alice established a relationship with a young woman (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) awakened Alice to life's possibilities before declining the invitation to a long-term relationship. Mbatha-Raw's character couldn't imagine a life without children. More an emblem than a character, Mbatha-Raw has little to do beyond looking luminous. The interactions between Alice and Frank -- her new charge -- are well-handled but the movie concludes with a couple of dubious twists, one that milks emotions and the other that strains credibility. Penelope Wilton portrays the aging Alice in opening and closing scenes and the movie features Tom Courtenay as a gentle, compassionate small-town man. Swale mostly ignores social responses to lesbian love during less tolerant days, makes little reference to race, and seems most interested in providing a cinematic massage to soothe troubled spirits. I kept wondering whether the thorny, evidence-driven character Arterton creates possibly could have made it through the soggy third act.

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