Film Review: Summer In February

Summer in February

Dan Stevens and Emily Browning in Summer In February

I feel a bit of a fraud writing a film review as I am not much of a film fan. In my cultural league, films languish mid-table, somewhere above medieval art and modern dance. There are many films I like, but no movie has ever had a life changing effect on me in the way books and music have, or had me absorbed like a great piece of theatre, work of art or even (even!) a brilliant TV series.

With some notable exceptions, I find modern movies too often derivative and unimaginative, especially those adapted all-too clumsily from books. It’s an oft touted cliche that film adaptations of books are inferior to the original, but the only film I’ve enjoyed more than the original novel was Trainspotting and I suspect that had a lot to do with the soundtrack and Ewan McGregor.

Where books can be multi-layered, rich in detail and introspective, films are often one- dimensional, conventional and necessarily plot-driven, hitting viewers over the head with symbolism, character traits and spelling the details out to us like the popcorn-munching idiots they think we are.

Sometimes it’s simply Hollywood’s arrogance that ruins book adaptations, with directors and scriptwriters believing they can do a better job than, say, this jumped up writer called Thackery can do (what Mira Nair did to his Vanity Fair in her 2004 film still makes me angry years after subjecting myself to it).

I read Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February last year after hearing about a film version that was, at the time, being shot.

Intrigued by the synopsis I sought out the novel, keen to get in with my ‘but the book was better’ opinion before anyone else. The film, out this week, is scripted by Jonathan Smith himself, looks lovely and sticks pretty rigidly to the original story – although the skeletal version of it. Understandably, Smith reins in the details and focuses on the love triangle between Florence Carter-Wood, Alfred ‘AJ’ Munnings and our hero Gilbert Evans, while Laura and Harold Knight, Joey Carter-Wood are amongst the characters swept largely off the screen (a particular shame in Laura Knight’s case; she was an intriguing character and played by the brilliant Hattie Morahan could have been a scene-stealer). But romance and scenery are what sell cinema tickets and Summer in February has both in spades.

Based on a true story, the film follows the gentle, eminently sensible Gilbert Evans, an estate manager in the Cornwall coastal town of Lamorna. He’s resolutely middle of the road is our Gilbert, but he finds himself taken into the bosom of the bohemian artist set, in particular by the captivating horse-loving painter AJ Munnings. They have sing-alongs in pubs and matey chats while trotting on horseback along the beach, avoiding the life-drawing nude models. Then Florence Carter-Wood turns up as Australian Emily Browning whose lovely cheekbones and pouty lips soon bewitch both AJ and Gilbert. Their story – in short: a marriage, a death, a trip to London, lots of drinking, a bit of painting – all takes places against the beautiful backdrop of Lamorna which is everything you want from a Cornwall movie scene, all frothy waves, spectacular cliffs and a lovely sandy beach. Well played Cornwall.

The actors are all perfectly fine; no one does spurned-in-love puppy-dog sadness like Dan Stevens while Dominic Cooper, who I thought too slight, too young, too unassuming to play the demonstrative, overbearing, charismatic AJ Mannings strikes a good line between being a sexy bad boy and an oafish bore. I liked him; AJ isn’t a bad man, just one that lacks that sensitivity chip.  Emily Browning pouts beautifully and is winsome and fragile enough, but she’s concentrating so hard on her (very good) cut-glass English accent that for the most part she forgets to inject Florence with a personality.

Summer In February is lovely wet Sunday afternoon kind of film. The intensity and spell-binding passion and intrigue of the original may have been swept away like a sandcastle at high tide, but what’s left is pretty and enchanting. Just make sure you read the book too…

by Suzanne Elliott

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