Keep calm and carry cake

Wartime with Alice in ‘Summerland’

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'Summerland' feature film stills by Michael Wharley
IFC Films

They’ll be love and laughter / And peace ever after / Tomorrow, when the world is free —Vera Lynn, “The White Cliffs of Dover”

Frank (Lucas Bond) has come to Summerland. Sort of: Under normal conditions, he’d be living in London, but it’s World War II, and the blitz is on. His father is an RAF pilot, and his mother works for the ministry. Bomb sirens sound throughout the night, and the city is no place for a child. So, he’s shipped off to live with Alice (Gemma Arterton), a reclusive spinster living in a cluttered cottage near the white cliffs of Dover. Not a bad place to wait out a war, if only Alice were a bit more welcoming. We must all do our part, a neighbor assures her. If looks could kill, Alice would have considerably fewer neighbors.

Alice isn’t interested in her part. She’s interested in her cottage, her work and maybe, if the mood strikes her, inflicting a little displeasure on those around her — like taking chocolate from a child.

That scene — the indulgent smile on Alice’s face as she takes a long, satisfying drag of her cigarette while a young girl cries off-camera — tells you everything you need to know about Alice. Mary Poppins, she is not.

She’s a writer, one who specializes in Celtic myths. And not just to recount them — that’s a bunch of hokum, she tells Frank — but to find their origins in the real world. As Alice recounts, people must have seen something to inspire the myth: “Stories have to come from somewhere.”

Frank has stories. And he has curiosity, enough to find himself enchanted by the brusque Alice. When the two go looking for a Fata Morgana, a mirage, Frank sees “Dover castle! A turret with a green flag!” Dover castle doesn’t fly flags, Alice snaps, abandoning her grade school companion on the grassy knoll. But on the drive home, she spies a castle flying a green flag from its turret. Stories have to come from somewhere.

Written and directed by Jessica Swale, Summerland has a touch of wonder with a tinge of loss. It’s a breezy affair, runs a little over 90 minutes but feels nothing like it. That’s all due to Arterton, an actress who seems right at home in period films. Bond is good too but displays limitations when the story asks too much of him. Frankly, it’s surprising Swale doesn’t ask more of him, but one of the movie’s tricks is how it sidesteps ancillary scenes for flashbacks with Alice’s romantic relationship with Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Once those threads intertwine, it becomes apparent how enjoyable Summerland truly is.

Summerland is light, airy and sweet. It’s the angel food cake of cinema: You may not crave it, but you always enjoy it when it’s on the table. And though the movie’s framing device injects saccharine sentimentality in the last three minutes, it’s not enough to distract from the rest: An easygoing hour and a half in an enchanting cottage near the white cliffs of Dover.   

ON THE BILL:  Summerland will be available on Video On Demand July 31.