Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Film Review: Summerfield (1977)

According what little I could find out about this film on the internet, Summerfield was, it's claimed, one of the first of the Australian New Wave films; in fact, it was supposed to be directed by Peter Weir but he opted for The Last Wave, his follow-up to Picnic at Hanging Rock. It's easy to see why this project would have been a good match for his talents. Like Wave and Rock, Summerfield leans heavily into the eeriness of Australia's landscape and suggests more than it shows.

The central character is Simon, a teacher who's come to the small town of Bannings Beach to replace a teacher who's mysteriously disappeared. His introduction to the tiny school is a shocker as he interrupts some children engaged in a mock hanging. He then meets a young girl, Sally, who takes an instant interest in him. Simon boards at a guest house where the other residents run the gamut from standoffish to odd to the traditional lascivious landlady. He's given the former teacher's room and finds it still contains his belongings and what might be some clues to his disappearance. While out driving, Simon hits Sally after she darts in front of his car. She isn't badly hurt, and this is how he makes the acquaintance her mother Jenny, and Jenny's brother David. They live on the island of Summerfield, which can only be reached by a causeway which they keep gated and locked. Simon begins visiting Summerfield to tutor Sally while she recovers from a broken leg, and soon takes a romantic interest in Jenny, who seems to be torn over whether to return his affection. Simon begins to suspect that his predecessor's disappearance is linked to Summerfield. 

It's tempting to spoil the ending, which involves several fatalities and a big reveal, but as dramatic as it sounds it's something of a letdown. Summerfield is excellent in many ways: the acting is solid, the dialogue lean and effective, and it's nicely shot. The problem is that it starts out promising one thing (two, really) and then deflates into what could be called a gothic domestic drama. The chilling scene of the mock hanging, combined with the surly and sullen locals, seems to promise a quasi-supernatural story about evil children and/or a town with a terrible secret. Summerfield Island even feels like a reference to Summerisle of The Wicker Man. That narrative, however, soon disappears and is replaced with a possible murder mystery as Simon goes sleuthing in a sort of half-hearted way. The mystery eventually resolves into a shaggy dog story, and what we're left with is a romance that turns tragic.

Despite a finale that's relatively easy to predict, Summerfield is very watchable and a reminder that a small country, population-wise, could punch above its artistic weight with the right governmental funding support. By contrast, at that same time the Canadian government was trying to ignite the local film industry with tax breaks, but poor supervision of what was being funded turned the industry into Hollywood's B-movie branch plant, churning out forgettable films that offered fading American actors and Canadian stars filling quota requirements a quick and rich payday. The career of David Cronenberg is the only notable result to come from era. So, despite its flaws, Summerfield is still better than 90% of what Canada would produce through the tax shelter years.

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