(director/writer: Jessica Swale; cinematographer: Laurie Rose; editor: Tania Reddin; music: Volker Bertelmann; cast: Gemma Arterton (Alice Lamb), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Vera), Tom Courtenay (Mr. Sullivan), Penelope Wilton (Older Alice), Lucas Bond (Frank), Dixie Egerickx (Edie), Amanda Root (Mrs. Lawrence), Siân Phillips (Margaret Corey), Jessica Gunning (Mrs. Bassett), Amanda Lawrence (Muriel), Toby Osmond (Frank), David Horovitch (Albert), Aoibhine McFlynn (Cassie); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Guy Heeley, Adrian Sturges; IFC; 2020-UK)
“Contrived World War II period drama.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The British playwright, Jessica Swale, in her directing feature film debut, is the writer-director of this contrived World War II period drama. It tells about this angry, loner, academic folklore researcher, who is not liked in her neighborhood for her disdain for children but, nevertheless, cares for a London boy during the Blitz in her seacoast cottage in Kent.
It opens with the chain-smoking protagonist Alice Lamb portrayed as an elderly woman in the 1970s by Penelope Wilson, as she’s busy typing her memoirs in her humble house on the East Sussex coast. It quickly shifts back to World War II, where Alice is played by Gemma Arterton. It shows her busy typing her folklore research. When she’s bothered by the noise from the local school children, she reports them to the benign school principal, Mr. Sullivan (Tom Courtenay).
A volunteer bangs on her door one day and drops off a cute young evacuee, Frank (Lucas Bond), from London, on her doorstep (his dad is a bomber pilot and mom works for the war effort). Not wanting him, Alice is informed she’ll have to keep the quiet lad until another place can be found for him. When he timidly asks for dinner, she angrily snaps at him to cook it himself, which reminds us why the locals refer to her as a witch.
She warms up to the kid when he shows an interest on her research of “floating islands,” the Fata Morgana mirage visions of the ancient pagans (the Vikings) whose art shows their belief in an afterlife place called Summerland.
Settling into the witches’ home, Frank at school makes friends with another evacuee named Edie (Dixie Egerickx), a tomboy and a maverick, who lives with her grandparents.
Alice chooses to remain his guardian, even when another family is found. The boy’s sweet presence allows her to recall the lesbian affair she had in college with an aspiring black novelist, Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who broke up with her because of her desire to be respectable as a mother and got married (which Swale points out as the reason her heroine hates children).
The film has a beautiful look thanks to cinematographer Laurie Rose. It also surprises us, as Alice speaks openly to Frank about her romance with Vera and the kid readily accepts that (probably it’s unlikely in that era would there be such an easy acceptance by the kid). It also brings up the importance of storytelling and faith, and of making connections with others. It tells us that just because we haven’t seen something, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Which explains the magic introduced into the narrative.
A great performance by Arterton enlivens the drab surroundings, and makes it a film some might like for sentimental reasons or others, like me, might find its fairy-tale motif too improbable.
REVIEWED ON 8/9/2020 GRADE: C+