Film Review: Summer in February

Lifetime movie with English accents.

Jonathan Smith’s novel on which the film Summer in February is based has reportedly been reprinted 11 times since its initial publication in 1996. One can assume then that Smith, who also wrote the screenplay, is more comfortably conversant in prose than in the language of the cinema. For all its characters’ longing looks, exchanged across an impasse of space and self-made obstacles; for all the insistence of its dramatic score; and especially for all its ubiquitous shots of crashing waves, Summer in February never fulfills the promise of its swooningly romantic storyline. It aims to be sweeping, and only manages to dust about a bit on that darned beach.

To be fair, the reason for the film’s clunkiness may lie less in Smith’s adapted script than in director Christopher Menaul’s ham-handed treatment of his subject. The story is certainly rife with dramatic, romantic, cinematic potential. Based on real-life British painter A.J. Munnings (Dominic Cooper)— who, if you gleaned no other biographical information from February, you would know liked horses a good deal—and his cohorts among artists’ colony the Lamorna Group circa 1910, the film charts the tragic trajectory of a doomed love triangle. Talented, beautiful Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning), whose recurring bouts of melancholia would have certainly gotten her locked away in some attic had she come of age in the previous century, has run away to this bohemian enclave following a broken engagement, intent on living with her brother and studying art. She immediately catches the eye of both hot-blooded Munnings and his good friend, the staid but compassionate soldier Gilbert Evans (Dan Stevens).

An attraction between Evans and Carter-Wood is evident from their first meeting, but self-consciously repressed Florence is drawn to the virile Munnings. She sits for one of his paintings, he asks her to marry him, she says yes. One, two, and (a hop, skip and improbable bound to) three. Though the attraction between the newly affianced pair begins to wane long before the wedding, and though Florence is clearly in love with Evans, and he with her, our heroine nonetheless marches down the aisle towards her sorry fate as if external forces, of which there is not one, are cruelly forcing her.

The fun really gets going in the second half of the film, when melodrama takes over and both Cooper and Stevens are given their chance to greedily chomp away at the scenery. If there were more winking humor, or a sense of knowing camp during those moments when things like cyanide, questions of paternity, and horse soup form the crux of the dramatic tension, Summer in February could have been great fun. But Menaul plays it straight, and so much the worse. The characters are so broadly drawn they’re left to do little more than act out boldfaced characteristics of their “types”: Cooper rails drunkenly, Stevens suffers nobly and Browning looks the most angelic kind of pained. The direction during several of the early scenes is frenetic, with the camera cutting back and forth from one face to the other after each line of dialogue.

Then there is the heightened nature of the romantic imagery, the leitmotifs of beach and horses, which, however, would not have seemed nearly so reprehensibly silly had the film been intended for a young audience. There’s a definite teenage viewership for this sort of broadly played period romance, the literary faction to the Twilight set, but one scene of full-frontal nudity in particular practically guarantees Summer in February will never reach most 14-year-old American girls. Again, so much the worse, because if not highly forgiving romantics, for whom is Summer in February intended? Fun at the expense of a silly production wanes when one has to repeatedly question if the filmmakers are in on the joke. If, as in this case, it doesn’t appear so, you’re left with a sad sense of waste, at both your expense and theirs, at the movie’s end. Luckily for Dan Stevens, who’s just embarking on his big-screen career following a beloved run on “Downton Abbey,” it’s unlikely many people will end up seeing Summer in February, leaving him free to choose much wiser post-“Masterpiece Theatre” roles.