Summerland Review: Have We Found the Big Lesbian Film of 2020?

Summerland has got what it takes to be the defining lesbian film of 2020. An interracial same-sex romance unfolding on the English coast amidst the turmoil of WWII, Summerland brings lesser-known herstories to life. At its heart is a lesbian love story. But this is also a tale of unlikely friendships, grief, and finding the courage to live your truth.

Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton) is a writer. She lives alone in rural Kent, and that’s how she likes it. Alice is subject to the malicious pranks of the town’s younger boys and the wagging tongues of older residents – a refusal join in with group activities or conform to feminine behaviour means she’s seen as fair game. They say that Alice is a witch or – a far more dangerous rumour – a German spy. Being a committed loner, Alice isn’t bothered. All of her time is devoted to her great work: a treatise using scientific research to debunk pagan myths and legends – including Summerland.

But her solitary lifestyle changes when Alice is assigned an evacuee to care for. A young boy named Frank is quite literally dropped off on her doorstep. Alice is less than enthusiastic. For all her protests, there’s nothing to be done. Operation Pied Piper saw more than 800,000 of London’s children sent to the countryside to keep them safe from air raids targeting big cities. Nobody else in the community has room for Frank.

Though Alice initially resents having to care for a child, the two of them develop an understanding. Both were alone in the world until a twist of fate brought them together. Loss played a defining part in Alice’s past and, with a father in the air force, it looms over Frank’s future. As they grow closer, Frank’s sincerity and open-mindedness prove the perfect anecdote for Alice’s cynicism. This unlikely friendship gives Alice the space to think about the last significant relationship in her life: a romance with Vera Wilbond (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

Vera is a high-spirited young woman: charismatic, glamorous, and full of joie de vivre. A youthful Alice was not afraid to match her playfulness and sense of adventure – in fact, this affectionate young Alice is almost unrecognisable as the grumpy loner cloistered away in her cottage. Scenes of their romance are softer, warmly lit; golden days that Alice remembers fondly. For all the risks attached to being one half of a lesbian couple with a Black woman in the early 20th century, those were the happiest days of Alice’s life. But Vera desperately wanted the one thing Alice couldn’t give her: a child.

Summerland is a subtly political film. No apology or justification is given for centering an interracial lesbian romance; the type of love story that has traditionally been written out of British history. Through Alice and Vera’s story, the audience witnesses the great sadness of being part of a couple that is at best invisible, at worst despised. When Vera visits her mother in hospital, one of her relatives very pointedly closes the door on Alice – a silent moment of homophobia recognisable almost a century later. As their relationship falls apart, there is a dreadful irony in the reality that Vera must leave a loving, committed relationship to build a family.

Seeing these elements of lesbian life on the big screen is powerful. And for an interracial lesbian story to be told in a mainstream film – with big names like Tom Courtenay and Penelope Wilton among the cast – is a significant step forward for lesbian representation. And – unlike other mainstream lesbian films such as Todd Haynes’ Carol or Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour – Summerland was written and shot with a female gaze.

It’s the feature length directorial debut of Jessica Swale, an award-winning playwright. Though new to the big screen, she has plenty of experience directing in theaters. And Swale’s knack for getting the most out of a story makes Summerland a captivating cinematic experience – viewers are swept from the roaring twenties to the radical seventies by this character-driven drama.