(Originally posted at Take One)
Twigging the success and popularity both fictional and factual tales of the upper classes amidst pre-WW1 equanimity have been on British television of late, writer Jonathan Smith adapts for the screen and presents Summer in February, based on his own original novel. Directed by Christopher Menaul, who, tellingly, comes from a lengthy career in made-for-television productions, the film is a rigid glance into the fraught emotions and relationship antics that ran amuck in the Newlyn School artist’s colony in Cornwall, 1911. Steering away from the socio-political contexts of a Britain on the brink of a major war, Smith’s screenplay instead focuses on a bland love triangle based on actual events, yet the film desperately lacks the turbulence necessary to make this romantic quandary remotely engrossing; the type of turbulence expressed by the crashing waves that surround these vapid character’s picturesque locale.
Not an actor of particular subtlety, Dominic Cooper plays the painter, poet and self-confessed womaniser A.J. Munnings, whose vernacular is as eloquent and sharp as his brush strokes. Alongside his good friend Gilbert Evans, a local land agent (played by the stuffy Dan Stevens, who also acts as producer), Munnings enjoys a carefree life amongst the bucolic shores and shapely maidens of the Cornish coast, enjoying the fruits of his arrogant travails uninterrupted by responsibility or artistic interference. A simple existence of painting and poetry is scuppered, however, with the arrival of Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning), an aspiring artist who joins the group and immediately charms both Munnings – who initially schools her in painting – and Gilbert, whose unrequited passion grows. As the three friends embark on a cautious and discrete love triangle, events conspire to take a toll as their individual futures become darker and altogether more unwelcoming.
Taking its various dramatic cues from heated tea parties and characters gazing, woefully, into the beautifully captured middle distance, Summer in February is a triumph of antiquated posturing and quite unimaginative storytelling, marrying Smith’s stilted and mostly limply spouted dialogue with Menaul’s elementary directing style. Marking his first post-Downton Abbey role – a soapy perusal through post-Edwardian aristocracy that, despite being not dissimilar to the contexts of Smith’s story, is largely more guiltily enjoyable – Stevens effectively channels his past role as fusty Matthew Crawley into his portrayal of Gilbert, a man defined by pent-up emotion. Though it isn’t that much of a stretch, Stevens – whose time on set was split with the filming of ITV’s televisual behemoth – brings relatively little to a part that is already thinly sketched. All Gilbert is is an opposition to Munnings’ seething egotism, an everyman who audiences are meant to root for when Florence’s indecision begins to semi-drastically unravel.
That isn’t to say any of the characters are particularly well rendered. Quite the contrary in fact; Smith’s story languishes in stock characters trapped in a conventional portrait of adultery and conflicted emotions: Munnings the deceptively charming man governed by his art; Gilbert the lovable dote, and Florence an artistic novice with a vulnerable disposition. Each actor brings little to their parts or even challenges their stilted characteristics, instead collectively settling for evocatively dressed blobs of colour sat on a palette, refusing to comingle.
As a depiction of bourgeois artistry in a pre-war period, Summer in February has some interesting angles. Yet Menaul does nothing with already staid material, and the result is almost unbearably dull.