The portrait of a love triangle in Lamorna, Christopher Menaul’s cinematic debut Summer In February drags woman through the rose madder.
The Artist by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
This very British movie about a tragic love triangle has a human interest story at the heart of its production. Dan Stevens, of Downton Abbey fame, had a long-cherished ambition to bring the eponymously titled novel, written by his school English teacher, Jonathan Smith, to the screen. The project has been in development for around seven years and now here it is, with the book’s author making his debut as a screenwriter. Summer in February sticks closely to the true story of melodramatic events among the members of the Newlyn School. It was a bohemian – by the standards of the day –colony of artists in the early years of the last century, whose work was rooted in the shimmering natural light of the Cornish coast and the everyday life of Lamorna Cove, where they were living, breaking free from convention. Nearly all went on to become respected in their field and some in later life were awarded honours and became pillars of the establishment. TV director Christopher Menaul, in his first feature film, makes good use of the stunning locations. Setting the scene, he opens with two riders galloping their horses across the sands of a wide Cornish bay. Then the camera turns to the rocks, where we see a naked model reclining while an artist dabs paint at the canvas on her easel.
It’s that end-of-an-era time just before the World War One, and, as we learn later, the riders are best friends, artist AJ (Alfred) Munnings (Dominic Cooper) and land agent Gilbert Evans (Dan Stevens), while the woman with the paint brush just happens to be Laura Knight (Hattie Morahan). Munnings is the embodiment of the life force – irrepressible, rambunctious, probably a genius, and prone, in company, to conversation-stoppingly reciting swaths of poetry from memory. In contrast, gentlemanly, decent Gilbert, an army reservist officer, is the sensible, sensitive, restrained one. When beautiful Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning) first steps though the door of the bebeamed village pub where the artists are gathered, fleeing London and the opposition of her wealthy, repressive father, and intending to become an artist, she inevitably becomes the focus of attention – both male and painterly. Though she and Gilbert are soon drawn to each other, after Munnings paints her portrait on horseback, she succumbs to his thrilling disregard for convention and accepts his sudden, take-it-or-leave-it proposal of marriage. Waves crash on the rocks, horses gallop on the sea’s edge, passion is unbridled and the wheels of tragedy are set in motion. But her relationship with Munnings is literally poison for her. His love of life and art that she found so compelling at first come hand in hand with his crushing insensitivity to others. Even before her marriage, she realises she has made a terrible mistake, but she goes through with it and then takes cyanide on her wedding day – a twist which the script hasn’t prepared us for. When she recovers, gentle, faithful Gilbert, still in love with her, tries to help her pick up the pieces of her life, but it’s too late.
Summer in February tells a fascinating story of a period in history and art which, though written about, is not very well known and has never been filmed, and the real-life story of Gilbert’s unrequited love is touching. But despite the wide horizons and rugged cliffs, the film has the feel of a well-made Sunday evening television period drama, and not just because Dan Stevens plays an understated character not too dissimilar to his Downton role. The inspirational landscape is atmospherically conjured up and the costumes look beautiful and authentic. But the dialogue is leaden and the pacing is rather uneven – slow at the beginning to establish the characters, yet skimming over some events too quickly, such as how courtship turned into marriage and suicide. The establishing shots of artists and easels don’t succeed in creating a context of the creativity of real painters at work – a sense of why these people were important or innovative as artists, or of them as rounded characters and not just historical figures in period fancy dress.
Dominic Cooper is strangely unconvincing as the outspoken, forceful Munnings. His striding and declaiming don’t succeed in conveying the vitality that apparently made him so irresistible to women –to sport an ill-fitting trilby at a rakish angle when painting al fresco is not enough to create charisma. Little is shown of Munnings’ paintings, although even then he was recognised as a great painter of horses: years later, he was knighted for his achievements and became a president of the Royal Academy. For Florence, despite the hints of her blossoming sexuality as she comes under Munning’s spell, there are no internal insights to explain the sudden about-turns of her subsequent actions. Whilst, of course, the focus of the film is on the triangular relationship of Munnings, Gilbert and Florence, the character of Laura Knight (later Dame), interesting in her own right – as was her artist husband Harold – is not developed, and relegated to a mere facilitor of gatherings and a confidante.
Summer in February has so much going for it and, as with so many other major British productions, you really want it to be good. Paradoxically, because hopes are so high, it’s tempting also to be overcritical. The film is clearly a labour of love, but it never really transcends its safe Sunday telly atmosphere and sadly it feels like a missed opportunity to have made something really good.
Summer In February is released on 14th June 2013 in the UK