28 June – 4 July 2013; DCA
The love triangle is a familiar trope in the movie industry, yet Summer in February (2013), a true love-triangle story, retains a significant amount of substance thanks to its authenticity. Jonathan Smith, a teacher of lead actor Dan Stevens, wrote the book and subsequent screenplay, providing a fascinating route from page to screen.
The film centres on a trio of main characters, all living at an artist’s retreat in Cornwall at the beginning of the 20th century. Gilbert Evans (Dan Stevens) and AJ Munnings (Dominic Cooper) are the best of friends until the arrival of love interest Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning). To begin with all is pleasant, as the artists find themselves inspired by the Cornish coast at Lamorna Cove. The setting is a true triumph and director Christopher Menaul provides shots that are as stunning as the artwork featured within the film. The two best friends are portrayed, typically for a love triangle, as complete opposites. Munnings is the talented, wild, bohemian genius who is constantly the centre of attention and admiration for all those around him. Gilbert, on the other hand, is sensible, courteous and doing his best to look after the offbeat artists that inhabit the Cove. It is between these two that Florence must choose as she escapes her overbearing father and develops her artistic skills. Despite her initial interest in Evans, it is the somewhat inevitable attraction to Munnings and his joie de vivre that sees her accept his impulsive marriage proposal. It is at this point in the story that Summer in February departs from the traditions of the genre and shows the vulnerable, troubled aspects of Florence’s character. Upon realising her mistake in marrying Munnings she attempts to commit suicide by poisoning herself. The combination of this twist, and the realisation that it is based on a true story, has the effect of revitalising what was, up to then, a mundane re-telling of a tried and tested plot. The film continues by offering the possibility that true love with Evans will conquer the money and status that Munnings represents, yet the film makes one more tragic arc, which, again, was somewhat unexpected for a British romance.
The highs and lows of the script run parallel to the performances by the three leads. Dominic Cooper struggles to be convincing in his display of an untamed force of artistic nature. It is only when he shows a dangerous, aggressive side that we see the acting talent Cooper undoubtedly possesses. Emily Browning suffers from many of the same criticisms, really only showing her skills when emotions are high, particularly those moments when she faces suicide. Yet even these high points are weakened by a lack of explanation as to why Florence was so afflicted. Finally, Dan Stevens gives a forgettable performance that is all too similar to his Downton Abbey (2010) character. While his portrayal may have been factually accurate, it is ever so slightly boring on screen.
As mentioned, the location and the mise-en-scéne are the major successes of the film, accurately transporting the viewer to Cornwall in 1913. A particularly stunning image occurs just prior to Florence’s suicide attempt, as we see a wide shot of her wedding venue dominating her, much as Munnings has, while she exits on to the balcony, barely visible.
Overall, Summer in February has moments of true quality that allow it to stand out amongst others within its genre. Unfortunately, Menaul does not appear to have shaken all of his television directing tendencies and the film does not quite feel at home on the big screen. One cannot help but be disappointed as the elements of a tragic, intriguing story are more than evident and we can only hope that Jonathan Smith has more stories to write.