Summerland – a wartime drama with a contemporary sensibility

With a love story between two women at its core, Summerland examines deep themes of faith, spirituality, loss and belief through the concept of Summerland, a conceptualisation of the afterlife which has long been used in paganism.

It marks the feature directorial debut of acclaimed Olivier Award-winning playwright Jessica Swale, who helms her own original script.

“Summerland is a pagan idea of what heaven is,” explains Swale. “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 not specifically pagan, 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.”

Jessica Swale during filming of Summerland

Set over one extraordinary and memorable long hot English summer, the film tells the story of Alice, a reclusive woman who has closed her heart to the world and uses her scientific background to debunk the existence of other-worldly forces and magic. Alice’s world is turned upside down when she is tasked with caring for Frank, a frightened and innocent young boy seeking shelter from the London Blitz. Over sun-dappled days in the Sussex countryside, Frank’s curiosity and open-mindedness unlock deeply buried and painful secrets in Alice’s past, and make her re-evaluate what it really means to free your imagination.

For Swale, the project, supported by a bursary from BAFTA, offered her an opportunity to develop an entire project from scratch. “They asked: ‘What themes do you care about? What is the film that you’ve never seen that you think should be in the cinema?’ I thought, well I really want to write about imagination and hope. I want to make a film that people can enjoy. I wanted to write a film which had an important message about open-mindedness and the way that innocence and truthfulness and simplicity can actually uncomplicate all of our biases and prejudices.”

While exploring the big themes in the film, her own father passed away. “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. He loved the simple things in life. He loved nature and going for walks and taking photographs of mushrooms. The mushroom seed (which features in the film) is a bit of a nod to him. Summerland is something to do with that, the hope that there is something that connects us with everything that’s been before in all these people.”

Producer Adrian Sturges came on board when fellow producer Guy Heeley sent him the script

Swale’s moving, evocative and vivid story was an instant draw. Sturges particularly liked the fact that while the film is set in wartime Britain, it deals with very progressive and contemporary ideas.

“What I really liked was it felt like a very fresh take on a period that we’ve seen quite a lot in film and a setting that we might think is familiar,” he says. “But then it does something really interesting in a sort of Trojan Horse way, quite a progressive story within the bounds of a familiar historical period. I loved its wit, its very strong emotion. It made me cry when I read it and I thought the turns in the story were really interesting.”

Having Gemma Arterton cast as the fiercely independent folklore investigator – with whom Sturges worked with on The Disappearance of Alice Creed – early helped greatly in terms of developing the project, he says. “She attached herself early, which was really helpful because being able to talk to people about it with an actor already attached made such a difference. People could visualise the piece but also they knew Gemma’s work very well.”

For Guy Heeley, who has been involved with the project since the early stages, the blends of period setting and universal elements offered a unique form of storytelling, giving a twist to the confines of typical period filmmaking. “What I love about it is it’s not steeped in the tropes of period filmmaking,” says Heeley. “It has a really contemporary theme to it and it’s a story that could be told now – it happens to be set in World War 2 and it’s really interesting to see those themes playing out in that context. I think that’s an unusual way to go.”

Another draw for Heeley was the story’s accessibility, dealing as it does with elements of loss, anger and sadness and topics like family, childhood and motherhood. “It’s got something that appeals to everybody and we’re all familiar with it – we can all remember nostalgic summer holidays in our childhood. It’s got a really beautiful love story at its center. It’s got themes that we can all relate to. And that’s what makes it a contemporary movie.”

For Swale, the elements of family and motherhood were hugely important as they were questions she and her friends were asking in their real lives.

“I was 30 when I was writing it and I was also at that point thinking: ‘Do I want to be a mother and have a family and do I want to work and how do I do both of those things?’ It seemed like a very complicated and knotty issue that we, and all of our friends were asking, a lot of these big life questions about what we wanted. It’s really hard I think for everybody but particularly for women, that choice of can you have a family and work and is it all right to just choose your work if that’s your passion. And what’s wrong with doing that? That was one of the questions at the heart of the film. I don’t want to write a film and subject those intelligent actresses to a part that’s not fully formed. Let’s write some real women and I think film is doing much better in that department, there are a lot more interesting roles for women.”

The Casting Process

Jessica Swale was already scripting the film as she got to know Arterton through their theatre work – and realised she had found her Alice. “I didn’t write the part with Gemma in mind because I didn’t really know her then. But once we met and we started working together it just became obvious that she would be such a good fit for it so I rewrote the part and made her younger.”

She says Arterton was drawn to the character of an independent woman who is unconcerned with the trappings of personal appearance. “I think Gemma is really excited about playing a character whose notion of anything glamorous was totally out the window. She lives on her own, she doesn’t brush her hair. She never cuts her hair and doesn’t wear make-up, lives by the sea, is a bit muddy all the time and that’s the way she lives and why not?”

For her part, Arterton was beguiled by the script and the story of this strong but mysterious woman. “I asked her to send it to me not as an actress, but as a producer. As I read it, I just thought it was absolutely beautiful and it really moved me. I called Jess and said: ‘We have to make this and you have to direct it’.”

She was moved by the story of a woman, for reasons that are revealed in the film, who had closed herself off from society – until she is tasked with taking in a 14-year-old boy.

“She looks different. She dresses differently. She doesn’t abide by the rules of everybody else. It’s set during the Second World War and she doesn’t really heed to any of the community rules and she doesn’t blackout her windows. She really doesn’t care to be honest. She’s basically got all of her armour on and doesn’t want anyone to come into her life.”

She says it was “a joy” to play a woman so unapologetic, and unlike anyone else she’s ever played. With her unconventional appearance and work as a folklore historian who disproves myths with science and has a house full of folklore memorabilia, there are even rumours that Alice is a bit witchy.

Life events have made her the woman she is – and when teenager Frank, seeking shelter from the London Blitz, comes into her life, she gradually realises she must confront them. “When Frank arrives, he really does sort of soften her and open her up and rekindles this warmth and affection and compassion that she naturally has but has completely extinguished.”

Bond says that working with such established actors has been a great experience. “We sat in the house in the front room and just went through the script, looking at some of the different scenes, talking about where we were going to film this, how we were going to film and putting the input into the script, changing some things. It was really good, because a lot of the time when you’re a younger actor you go in there and you just do it. It’s nice to talk about it and work out what you’re doing beforehand.”

At the core of the film is a great love story between Alice and Vera (Gugu Mbatha Raw) which unfolds when they first meet as younger women in the 1920s.

Summerland Feature Film Stills by Michael Wharley

“It was really important for us to show a relationship between women that’s not just sexual because often that’s what’s seen in films,” says Arterton. “It’s about how brilliant they are together and how they bring out the best in each other.”

“Gugu had worked with Jessica as well and played the same part as Gemma in the very first production of Nell Gwynn at The Globe,” says producer Adrian Sturges. “So, there was something lovely about that symmetry, and we loved the idea of these two very different women who also have a similar kind of innate charm, and their ability to light up the screen. It was very exciting and the chemistry between them felt like a really interesting thing.”

Mbatha-Raw says she loved the story upon reading the script, and the new dimensions to characters it offered.

“It’s just such a beautiful story,” she says. “It’s heartwarming and romantic and surprising and I just thought it was such a beautiful script and then the chance to work with Jess as a director was too good an opportunity to miss. It’s a familiar world. But I think it’s told from a point of view that we don’t often see in these period dramas. So, for me that was really refreshing, the love story with Vera and Alice. And you get to see it through the eyes of a child. Vera is a very vivacious character getting to explore the Roaring Twenties and that energy and bright spirit that she has was a real treat. Vera and Alice meet at Oxford University. And Vera is this very flamboyant, confident woman who sort of draws Alice out of her shell. As the romance develops, the way the story is told is very much in flashbacks. Alice is having these flashbacks and we’re not quite sure exactly how they ultimately fit into the story but you get these very vivid memories that are haunting Alice, actually.”

Acclaimed actress Penelope Wilton plays Alice in the 1970s in what is a very strong cast. “I’m the older version of the young Alice and I appear at the very end of the film,” she says, adding that she was drawn to the project by Swale’s script. “I can only go by the script and the words I have to say and the words that are being said by other people. So I judge a script by that and if I didn’t think it rings true or is authentic or has some charm or has something special about it that there wouldn’t be much point in doing it. But I felt that this one had and was very unique.”

Wilton also loved that the story incorporates all types of relationships in the emotionally heightened period of a wartime setting. “I think that evacuation was a very difficult thing. These children were very young and often had never seen the countryside and especially if you came from London, the big cities, they’d never been in the country. They were very frightening times.”

It’s an authenticity that producer Adrian Sturges hopes fills every frame of the movie, breathing new life into the period drama.

“I hope people enjoy Summerland as a moving beautiful story with a sense of humour but also a real emotional truth at the heart of it and it’s something that they can reflect on and hopefully stay with them. A great film is a film that you remember. And for me, that’s the ambition.”

Jessica Swale- Writer- Director

Jessica Swale is an Olivier award-winning theatre director, playwright and Artistic Director of Red Handed Theatre Company. Jessica was hailed Variety’s Top Brits to watch in 2019 and named “best young director of period comedy” by The Guardian for her play Nell Gwynn which won Best New Comedy at the 2016 Olivier Awards. It explores the life of one of the first female actresses, Nell Gwynn (played by Gugu Mbatha Raw), from her time as an orange seller to starring onstage and her life as the King’s escort.

Most recently Jessica wrote and directed TV short Leading Lady Parts (2018). The success of Jessica’s first play Blue Stockings, “a lively and eye-opening piece” which premiered at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 2013 led to great critical acclaim and won her a nomination for ‘Most Promising Playwright’ at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. The play/film explores the traumatic experience of the country’s first female university students at Gurton College Cambridge in the 1980s.

Jessica is currently developing the film version of Blue Stockings.

After beginning her career as an Associate Director to Max Stafford-Clark at Out of Joint, she set up The Red Handed Theatre Company, which won the Peter Brook Award for Best Ensemble in 2012. For Red Handed.

Jessica is author of a best-selling series of Drama Games books, published by Nick Hern.