Film & TV

Summerland’s Progressive Sentimentality

Genna Atherton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Summerland. (IFC Films)
Poor storytelling and cliché romance expose a filmmaker’s predictable agenda.

Summerland, an indie love story about marginalized people, is a typical example of how movies employ cultural indoctrination. Though set in England’s past, first in 1975, then the 1940s and then back during World War I, every phase of writer-director Jessica Swale’s story uses contemporary methods of social conditioning.

The film’s characters are Millennial types: aloof feminist authoress Alice Lamm (Gemma Arterton); Frank (Lucas Bond), a biracial youth, survivor of London’s Blitz, separated from his parents and relocated to Kent where he’s entrusted to Alice’s care; and Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is Frank’s mother and Alice’s former lover. Each of these characters trigger politically correct sentiment, so this isn’t a “spoiler” as much as a simple statement of what we should by now expect from progressive filmmaking.

Swale, who was celebrated for her work in London theater (as author of 2015’s Olivier Award–winning play Nell Gwynne, which starred both Mbatha-Raw and Arterton in successive productions), makes her film directorial debut practicing all the fashionable conventions: female independence, gender parity, racial sensitivity. These issues are foremost in a narrative so awkwardly contrived that the characters’ behavior doesn’t make sense: Alice’s turning hermit; Frank’s total lack of class and racial awareness; Vera’s vacillating between homosexuality and the desire for motherhood don’t represent early 20th-century social norms. They are purely Millennial stock figures.

Alice is a personification of the wildly eccentric New Woman who wears her hair in rebellious, pre-Raphaelite abandon. She evokes that scene in Goodbye, Mr. Chips where an impetuous Greer Garson asks Robert Donat if he’s “afraid” because she’s “a strong-minded female who rides a bicycle and wants the vote.” Swale wants Alice to influence our vote; everything about her is meant to change our political way of thinking, rather than draw us close to Alice or help us identify with her. She’s such a standard-bearer that it’s impossible to understand her stubbornness in personal terms — as with her initial hostility to little Frank whose darling, open neediness doesn’t immediately melt her resistance.

It should become apparent to any culturally alert viewer that Swale is stuck in progressive sentimentality when Old Alice (played by Penelope Winton) is introduced warding off pesky kids who knock at her cottage door requesting charity: “You can help the aged.” Old Alice’s sharp-tongued “Bugger off!” is such cliché crotchetiness that one questions Swale’s own hipness. At age 38, Swale is old enough to know the 1998 song “Help the Aged” by Pulp, which twisted the well-known slogan of liberal appeal into one of Jarvis Cocker’s impish extrapolations of modern British sarcasm. Tinged with snideness, “Help the Aged” exposed the fear behind youthful zealotry (as did Pulp’s great class-system take-down “Common People”). That same social arrogance is at the heart of Summerland.

Swale’s film is full of #MeToo, #TimesUp zealotry that uses mediocre storytelling to push subversive notions. Alice teaches Frank about legends associated with English history that promote her own feminist principles, starting with Morgan le Fay and paganism. “Heaven is made up by Christians to make themselves feel better,” she says while explaining her preference for “Summerland,” the pagan ideal of heaven. This is no more alarming than the casual atheist secularisms heard on a TV show such as blackish, but it’s one of those hateful conceits that progressive hacks now take for granted.

Summerland’s shallow sense of British history reflects the moral confusion and cultural ignorance currently found in brash social movements — Alice’s idea of “Summerland” being the essence of sentimentality based in clichés. It is somehow deserved that Arterton, who powerfully embodied legendary moral ambivalence as the Morgan le Fay–like heroine of Neil Jordan’s Byzantium, is unappealing here, as is Mbatha-Raw, reduced to magical-Negro status. Both actresses are drained of their usual charm and sensual fervor. Arterton not only looks desolate but seems foolish when Alice mishandles news about Frank’s family and his birthday celebration. (She eventually dedicates a book to him entitled “In Search of Summerland.”)

Swale’s poor plotting exposes her trendy politics. Instead of devising a forthright story about romance, sexuality, and motherhood, as in Jordan’s remarkable re-invention of the vampire tale in Byzantium, Swale twists chronology and psychological coherence as if to soft-pedal her tale of an interracial lesbian couple who split and then reunite over the idea of parenthood. Summerland epitomizes much of the lousy storytelling artifice in recent films. It may have something to do with “dramaturgy” also being a sociological term (as in Erving Goffman’s theory that “a dramaturgical action is a social action that is designed to be seen by others and to improve one’s public self-image.” In other words, Summertime is sappy Sapphic propaganda.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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