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Summerland review: Gemma Arterton stars in a wartime film hampered by its complex storyline

Summerland                                                                             Cert: 12A, 1hr 39mins 

Rating:

Proxima                                                                                        Cert: 12A, 1hr 47mins

Rating:

Cinemas – at least in England – have been open for three weeks now, sustained by a mix of popular classics, more recent films that had their original cinema run curtailed by the pandemic and one or two low-profile new releases. But this coming Friday is the day when cinema gets serious again. Yes, for the first time in more than four months, there will be starry new films in English cinemas.

Audiences will have to be patient: it will be a slow and unpredictable return to anything like cinematic normality, as the further postponement of Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited Tenet only last week made clear. But among those getting the big-screen treatment this week – albeit in our now socially-distanced cinemas – is Summerland, a sun-drenched wartime drama starring Gemma Arterton.

Summerland is a sun-drenched wartime drama starring Gemma Arterton as Alice, a reclusive writer whose live is upturned by the unwelcome arrival of an evacuee from London

Summerland is a sun-drenched wartime drama starring Gemma Arterton as Alice, a reclusive writer whose live is upturned by the unwelcome arrival of an evacuee from London

Arterton’s presence and the wartime setting make comparisons with Their Finest, in which she also starred, inevitable. But this, despite all its essential likeability, isn’t quite in the same class, held back by a storyline too prone to heaping one improbability on to another. But if you liked Ladies In Lavender, The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, or the picturesque South Coast setting of Mr Holmes, this is definitely worth a look.

Arterton plays Alice, a reclusive and ill-tempered writer living alone in a cottage by the sea trying to finish her latest book on folklore. Floating islands and pagan concepts of heaven are her current obsessions, but all that comes to a halt when a knock on the door heralds the arrival of a local do-gooder dragging Alice’s worst nightmare behind her: a boy, Frank, an evacuee from London. Alice – something of a stranger to warmth and compassion – is furious.

She refuses to cook for him, make his bed or even show him where school is the next day. But Frank has a certain resilience and charm, together with a genuine interest in her work. Anyway, if she did throw him out after a week – as she threatens to – what sort of film would that make? Especially as there are all those intriguing flashbacks to what looks like rather more than a friendship between Alice and a beautiful fellow student, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

Director Jessica Swale, making her feature-film debut, gets lovely performances from a cast that also includes the likes of Tom Courtenay (above), Penelope Wilton and Siân Phillips

Director Jessica Swale, making her feature-film debut, gets lovely performances from a cast that also includes the likes of Tom Courtenay (above), Penelope Wilton and Siân Phillips

Jessica Swale, who writes and directs, has considerable experience in the theatre but here makes her feature-film debut. She gets lovely performances from a cast that also includes the distinguished likes of Tom Courtenay, Penelope Wilton and Siân Phillips in modest supporting roles. But while some of the folklore-inspired images she uses are magical and moving, her complex storyline ultimately feels too contrived – and a little clumsy – for its own good.

On paper, Proxima looks a near-perfect film to belatedly kick-start the cinematic summer: it has the air of a sci-fi space adventure; has one of those cool single-word titles in the tradition of Interstellar, Solaris and Serenity; and, arguably best of all, the gorgeous former Bond girl Eva Green is its star. A mildly sexy, space romp is surely just what those long-silent box-office tills have been waiting for.

Alas… if First Man was a rollercoaster ride about man (and they were all men) ‘slipping the surly bonds of Earth’, Proxima – directed and co-written by French film-maker Alice Winocour and playing out in subtitled French, German and Russian as well as English – is a disappointingly Earth-bound drama about whether female astronauts can ever slip ‘the surly bonds of motherhood’.

Lift-off is never quite achieved in Proxima despite an extremely good Eva Green (above with Zélie Boulant) leading the cast as an astronaut about to spend a year on the ISS

Lift-off is never quite achieved in Proxima despite an extremely good Eva Green (above with Zélie Boulant) leading the cast as an astronaut about to spend a year on the ISS 

A subdued Green, to be fair, is extremely good as Sarah Loreau, a late choice for a year-long mission to the International Space Station as preparation for a future manned mission to Mars. But her daughter definitely doesn’t want mummy to disappear into space for a year.

The problem is that none of this is really new enough or interesting enough to grab us, especially if you’ve gone in expecting – not unreasonably – a space film, or if you saw the similarly themed Lucy In The Sky with Natalie Portman last year. Lift-off is never quite achieved.

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