Several years ago, when playwright and theater director Jessica Swale initially conceived her first feature film, Summerland, set in the English countryside against the backdrop of World War II, there was no predicting how timely her movie would be at this summer’s release. A hopeful story that depicts love between women, found family, and the rediscovery of self, the film is particularly resonant at this moment when so many people are living under extraordinary circumstances and isolated from loved ones.
Vita and Virginia’s Gemma Arterton stars as Alice, a single writer content exploring pagan theories of floating islands and Summerland, a counterpart to heaven. That is, until she’s tasked with caring for Frank (Lucas Bond), a young evacuee from London separated from his mother for his safety while his father is off flying planes in the war. Meanwhile, Alice is, at turns, consumed with the memory of her long-ago love Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in the lush film that subverts the negative tropes that have generally defined stories about queer women on the big screen since before the era in which the film is set.
“I just think it’s very timely,” Mbatha-Raw says about the parallels to be drawn during the pandemic. “Even just the idea of evacuees and separation from our families. Obviously, ‘evacuees’ is not exactly what we’re going through, but there is an element of people not being able to see their parents, their loved ones, for their own protection, which was definitely the case in the Second World War in England. Children were sent away for their own protection then and that was a sort of sacrifice for the greater good during extraordinary times.”
Meanwhile, Arterton was struck by the film’s forward-thinking storyline that offered hope in a love story about women.
“At the time, I hadn’t really seen anything like that,” Arterton tells Out of reading Swales’s script circa 2016. “Times have changed even since then in terms of what we’re seeing, more female-centric films, and different types of female characters being portrayed onscreen. At the time, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I would go and see this film and I think it’s a beautiful story.’”
“I was taken on a complete emotional journey. I was crying reading the script and I was surprised by it,” Arterton says of the narrative that deftly weaves flashbacks of Alice and Vera’s breezy love affair into Alice’s present day as she copes with caring for Frank, who she initially views as a disruption to her solitary work and routine.
Arterton was drawn to Alice’s singularity and her disinterest in being liked by anyone. But as the film reveals, it was in part a growing implacability that led to the end of the affair with Vera. When Frank arrives and makes his way into her heart, Alice is offered the opportunity to reconnect with parts of herself that she’d brushed aside when she lost Vera.
“This kind of transformation that she goes on of actually going back to herself, the young Alice that believed in things,” Arterton says. “It’s almost spiritual—that feeling when she talks about what they did to say goodbye to her father [who died when she was young]. It just shows that she always had this belief in something else.”
While it’s the first time Arterton and Mbatha-Raw have been on screen together, the women shared a shorthand in their scenes in which they establish their abiding desire. They had, however, both played the titular role in Swales’s play Nell Gwynn at the Old Globe Theater, Mbatha-Raw says.
Both women arrive at Summerland having previously taken on roles important to queer women—Arterton as Vita Sackville West in the film that she produced, and Mbatha-Raw in the acclaimed Black Mirror episode “San Junipero.” They are both aware of the importance of getting those queer roles right.
“It’s so important to have uplifting films for everyone, and I loved this story because I think you see that their love really does endure,” Mbatha-Raw says.
“It’s really hopeful. Their love and their relationship isn’t a problem because they’re gay. The problem is they want different things out of life at that time,” she says of the film’s clever subversion of harmful stereotypes on film about queer women.
Regarding Summerland’s reclamation of narratives of women in love, Arterton says, “There are so many stories out there that need to be told about people who just couldn’t tell their own story or be themselves…. It’s a real privilege to be able to show these stories.”
Summerland is available in select theaters and on VOD July 31.
A version of this story will also appear in the print edition of Out Magazine that will debut in mid-August.