By John Mulderig
NEW YORK (CNS) — At first glance, the polished drama “Summerland” (IFC) would seem to have a charming, if less-than-original, story to tell about the conversion of a lonely, hard-edged eccentric whose crusty ways are altered by the presence of a child.
But this positive potential is spoiled by the film’s outright contradiction of Biblical truths about faith and morality.
The naysaying comes from Alice (Gemma Arterton), a reclusive, brusque expert on mythology living in a ramshackle cottage near Britain’s White Cliffs of Dover during World War II. Much to her initial annoyance, Alice is forced, temporarily, to share her home with Frank (Lucas Bond), a schoolboy evacuated from London because of the blitz.
Predictably, the two eventually bond. But not before Alice has shared her anti-religious worldview with her lodger — and the audience.
Thus the dialogue in writer-director Jessica Swale’s script has Alice observe that “God is hokum” and reject the idea of heaven as an invention. She also classes Christianity with the pagan ideas she studies as unscientific.
Curiously, the Swedenborgian-Theosophist version of a post-mortem paradise from which the movie takes its title is given more credence than its Judeo-Christian counterpart. A Viking ritual for commemorating the dead is also portrayed with approval.
As for scriptural ethics, Alice explicitly denies the objective sinfulness of relationships like the one she shared with Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a woman who eventually left her in the hope of becoming a mother. Although their lesbian romance is handled discreetly, the movie’s explicit message goes well beyond a plea for tolerance and dignity.
Distastefully — and rather anachronistically — young Frank is co-opted into the underlying propaganda project.
This tale has been told a hundred times without such problematic baggage. So viewers would be well-advised to revisit Scrooge and Tiny Tim, to give but one example, even if that means finding the true spirit of Christmas amid the dog days of summer.
The film contains denial of Christian teaching, a benignly viewed homosexual relationship, a same-sex kiss, a mild oath and a couple of crass expressions. The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.