In some modern magical traditions, it is believed that the dead cross over into a place called ‘the Summerland’.
It is thought to be the pinnacle of human spiritual achievement in the afterlife, the highest level we can hope to enter. And it is this mythology that lends its name to playwright Jessica Swale’s poignant directorial debut, Summerland, starring Gemma Arterton as prickly and solitary writer Alice Lamb.
While the Second World War rages in Europe, she spends her days on the English coast, hammering out academic theses on pagan beliefs about the afterlife, debunking myths using science to disprove the existence of magic. Her irritable and independent existence (the local children call her a witch) is ruined by the arrival of a boisterous but scared young evacuee fleeing the Blitz, who forces her to confront some deeply buried emotions.
“I procured the script somehow, I can’t even remember how, and I read it on my sofa and I just cried,” says Arterton. For the star of films such as Quantum Of Solace, Prince Of Persia and St Trinians, that was a new experience.
“I never cry reading a script,” she says. “It’s very rare, but it was the world, it was so clear. Jess had written these beautiful characters that were so detailed and realised, it just sprang out at me. But it was also the magic realism in the story. I’m always drawn to anything that explores the other and I particularly love magic realism because it’s rooted in reality.
“It just transported me and it just takes you to another level so that was what I loved about it. It was just beautiful storytelling and very, very original. I think these days when everything, well not everything, but a lot of stuff, is remakes and prequels and sequels and all that, it’s just really special to get something that is really original.”
Swale who won an Olivier Award for her play Nell Gwynn, got the chance to reunite with both Arterton and Gugu Mbatha Raw for the film after they both starred in her play. “When I wrote it I had absolutely no idea that I would work with either of them and it really came from just wanting to write something which celebrated the magic of the ‘‘what if’.
“It’s one of my favourite things about cinema, rather than necessarily telling stories about everyday life, in the cinema you actually have the chance to visualise more than what we can see. That is why I’ve always loved stories of magic realism and those questions about what could be, so I went very much from that point of view and the characters fell into it.
“Summerland is a pagan idea of what heaven is,” she explains. “It’s a notion of a place that exists alongside ours. And the idea that you can communicate between Summerland and normal life by leaving signs or messing with the edges is something that’s borrowed from a notion of lots of different myths and legends.
“It’s more about what Summerland represents. It represents the possibility of something beyond and of something magical.I lost my dad when I was in the final furlongs of writing this film, which seems really odd, because when I started writing I didn’t know he was ill. Yet that was the theme from the very beginning and so that’s why this is sort of for him, really.”
As Alice forms a bond with young and open-minded evacuee Frank, played by Lucas Bond, she revisits deeply buried and painful secrets in her past and memories start to flood her consciousness, of her romance with former lover, Vera, played by Mbatha-Raw.
“Funnily enough I originally wrote Alice to be a bit older than Gem and thought that we were possibly going to be working together from a producing point of view but then I thought ‘Hang on, this is an actress who I adore, who I think can do anything, what an amazing thing to put her in a part to allow her to stretch herself’. So when she said yes I was over the moon.
"And then Gugu has got such spark and charisma; there was just no question for me she would make a perfect Vera and having the two of them together was just a match made in heaven.”
The film, set over the course of a dreamy, sunny British summer, is being released in UK cinemas giving people the chance to return to the big screen to see a new film after many months away.
“It’s a real privilege to be part of the very first moment of films coming back,” says Swale. “We have to encourage people to come back and this film is so much about believing in the possibility of things improving and in hope and redemption and the importance of imagination and being open-minded and I feel like that is so resonant with this moment.”
“I know lots of films are waiting in the wings to make sure that there is going to be a big enough audience for them but I’m really proud of the producers here who were brave enough to say ‘someone has got to go first’ and we have got to reopen the doors and try and save some of those independent cinemas that frankly are under threat. The arts are so essential in giving people joy and some escapism and making us remember the important things in life so I’m really proud to be part of this moment.”
Summerland (12A) is out now in UK cinemas.
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