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

TV Review: Downton Abbey, Series 3, ITV1, Sunday 9pm

Shall we talk about Downton Abbey, or Dumbdown Abbey as I’ve taken to calling it as it spirals into the gutter quicker than one of cousin Isabel’s prostitutes?

Because, while it’s always been rather silly, it was always enjoyable nonsense, resplendent with beautiful frocks and handsome men in ridiculous collars. I’m a sucker for a period drama anyway, and the first series was (almost) perfect Sunday evening viewing. But, while I enjoyed it, I was surprised at how universally adored it was. As easy and entertaining as it was to watch, from the beginning Downton was too clunky for my tastes. All that sign-posting (Daisy: “Why do we iron newspapers, Mr Carson”; Mr Carson, “I’m so glad you asked me that, Daisy as all the viewers at home will also be wondering and as this is an ITV drama, these idiots will have to be told”). But at least things happened. A dead Turk in Mary’s bed! Thomas’ brewing secret! Evil O’Brien and the bar of soap! And, crucially, the will-they-won’t-they Mary and Matthew storyline, the engine that drove the whole soapy-show.

Rushed out to ensure it caught the golden wave of Downton-Fever, the second series was a largely badly paced mish-mash of implausible storylines where any dramatic tension was shot down quicker than a grouse on the Downton estate on the Glorious Twelfth. And for those (me) hoping that season three would recover as miraculously as cousin Matthew’s ‘severed’ spine, it’s, if anything, even worse, because, as well as being drivel, it’s now limp and boring drivel.

I’m beginning to feel insulted that Julian Fellowes is quite clearly just no longer trying. Does he think us plebs won’t notice the historical gaffs, the storylines that build only to be resolved before the next ad break? The plot holes and inconsistencies; why would an Earl in a financial quagmire be so against his youngest, least eligible daughter marrying a knight of the realm with pots of money because he was a little old and had trouble holding a knife and fork? Robert certainly didn’t have these quibbles in series one when he was hell-bent on marrying Mary off to Sir Anthony.

In fact, the script is the only consistent aspect of the show, but, unfortunately, not in a good way. The whole show is now held together by fine acting, beautiful frocks and Maggie Smith’s facial expressions.

But even the acting is looking limp; Dan Stevens seems to be wilting under all those dreadful lines he’s forced to utter, looking forlornly at that massive cigar permanently stuck between his fingers in this series, as if he knows that it has more charisma that Matthew. And Mary, who was so spirited and joyously bitchy – very much granny’s granddaughter – has descended into a boring nag. Michelle Dockery, so watchable in the first two series, practically sighs her lines out, fully aware of how tedious they sound. And while we’re on the subject, what has happened to Mary and Matthew? Once the emotional heart of the show, they had such great chemistry before they were married, and now all they do is bicker in nasty dressing gowns and make clumsy passes at inappropropriate moments. Perhaps Matthew isn’t quite up to poor Mr Pamuk’s standards.

Unlike the will-they-won’t-they Mary and Matthew storyline that almost outstayed its welcome, any major plot-development in the last couple of series has been quashed before it’s had time to brew. The Matthew rising from the wheelchair that barely an hour before he had been condemned to a life in, is perhaps the most famous example of killing a storyline before the kettle has brewed. But even the recent jilted Edith story has withered quicker than the wedding flowers. Stood up at the altar at the end of the last episode, sixty minutes later she’s a newspaper columnist. No time for sulking in Fellowes-land, young lady. I won’t even start on the whole Robert’s ruin/Matthew’s unlikely inheritance “plot” – what was the point?

The one storyline that has anytime to bed in, only to fall into a deep, and tedious slumber, is the Bates/Anna saga that limps on with interminable dullness each week (and talking of limps, where has Bates’ gone?) I’m longing for Bates to turn out to actually be an evil wife murderer and for him to escape, returning to Downton to par-boil Anna in one of Mrs Patmore’s giant saucepans.

I will, of course, keep watching, in the hope that this episode will be the one where at no point will I roll my eyes or shout “he wouldn’t say that” or (every time Bates makes an appearance – “just hang him”) at the telly. Although, maybe these are the reasons why I’m watching it, that, and the frocks of course.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Summer in February by Jonathan Smith

*SPOILER ALERT*

What is it about the beginning of the 20th century that fascinates us so much right now? From Downton Abbey’s first two series, to Parade’s End and the recent television production of Birdsong, those late Edwardian years seem to be the era of choice for TV writers. Do those last years of a fragile world, shattered by the First World War, resonate with our own uncertain times? Maybe in the face of so much unknown, we’re fascinated by those years of contentment giving way to such horrors? Or perhaps it’s simply the rather fabulous frocks and clipped accents?

Jonathan Smith’s 1910s based Summer in February pre-dates our current Edwardian-obsession and has now been adapted into a film, set to be released early next year, starring Dan ‘cousin Matthew’ Stevens and Dominic Cooper. It might share a timeframe with other recent cultural highlights, but Summer in February isn’t simply a tale of posh people in big houses bracing themselves for the end of the world as they know it; it’s a tale of the extraordinary, ordinary people that made up the Lamorna artist community, led by artist and horse lover Alfred ‘AJ’ Munnings.

The book opens with Munnings making his famous final speech as Chairman of the Royal Academy. He gives a damning, if rather incoherent, diatribe on modern art, before stumbling on a word that transports him back thirty years when, as a young artist he moved to Lamorna in Cornwall and became part of the larger group of Newlyn School of artists. The son of a Suffolk farmer, Munnings rather belly-flops into this quiet community, demanding everyone looks up from their easels and pay attention to him – which they duly do.

His attention, meanwhile, is drawn to the beautiful Florence ‘Blote’ Carter-Wood whose resemblance to Botticelli’s Venus mesmerises him and it’s not long before she soon goes from his model and muse to his wife. But the partnership that works so well on canvas doesn’t translate into real life and the marriage is a catastrophic disaster from day one.

And the reason? While AJ may demand our attention, at the heart of this novel (he even gets his own first-person chapter) is Major Gilbert Evans, local landowner Colonel Paynter’s (although he’s not one) land agent. A gentle foil to Alfred, he’s a quietly magnetic figure – and we’re not the only ones drawn to him, he’s already stolen Blote’s heart before she agreed to marry Alfred, himself equally dependent on his new friend.

Gilbert – or ‘Ev’ as he’s known to AJ – is the opposite of the bullish, boisterous Munnings – quiet, gentle, sensitive and selfless – he too falls head-over-heels in love with Florence. He is heartbroken at being passed over for Munnings and attempts to retreat from the newly engaged couple only to be drawn back into their lives when it becomes apparent to Blote, and Alfred, that they can’t survive – quite literally in Florence’s case – without him in their lives.

Rather than keeping her at arms length, Gilbert, ever the gentleman, takes Blote under his (outwardly) brotherly-like arm at Alfred’s request. For a while this love-triangle remains chaste with an uneasy, unspoken truce between Blote and Gilbert, until Gilbert, at breaking point, makes the decision to flee his agonising situation and accepts a job offer in Nigeria. His decision is the catalyst Florence needs, and in their few precious remaining weeks, the pair embark on a passionate love affair.

In addition to the three lovebirds, there’s a lively host of other characters including artist (Dame) Laura Knight and her quiet, but all-seeing, husband, Harold. The wild Cornish coast and the quirks, obsessions and passions of the community are beautifully, understatedly drawn by Jonathan Smith. He’s not an elaborate writer, his prose is economical and precise, but with a beauty and richness that belies his simple style. He evokes the crashing waves of the Atlantic, the prickling sweat on a unnaturally hot February day and Gilbert’s heavy heart so wonderfully that you can almost taste the salty sea water (or maybe that was my tears at Gilbert’s predicament).

The one character that remains as two-dimensional (I believe intentionally so) as a painting is Florence. What we know of her, we know through the eyes of the two men in her life. At first she seems like another privileged idle woman, but through her early sittings with Alfred and later meetings with Gilbert, we get glimpses of the woman behind the paintings, but she still largely remains an enigma, a beautiful figure on horseback sat passively in the dappled shade. We hear nothing of her thoughts or feelings. We never learn why she chose Alfred over Gilbert only to then regret her decision so suddenly and with such gruesome results.

I don’t think Florence’s ephemeral nature is a failing on Smith’s part to draw her, I think he’s making a point that she was an almost powerless woman in a time when female voices were silenced, even upper class ones. And Blote isn’t just a pawn in a man’s world, she’s also trapped and controlled by her mind that will ultimately destroy her.

Summer in February is one of those books that you want to buy all your friends copies of. It’s beautiful, haunting, powerful and, at times, very funny, book about fascinating people in a fascinating time.

by Suzanne Elliott

Summer in February is reissued on 23 May 2013, £8.99 from Waterstones.