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Non-Review Review: Summer in February

Summer in February is a lazy and contrived piece of pretentious twaddle. Exploring the true story of a colony of artists living off the coast of England in the early years of the twentieth century, it never offers anything more than a fleeting sketch of its characters and the world they inhabit. Benjamin Wallfisch’s powerhouse period score does a lot of heavy lifting, but it can’t do anything to keep the movie afloat. At one point, early in the film, artist AJ Munnings settles a hefty bar tab with an improvised drawing on the back of a bill. This film feels like it would be hard-pressed to pay for a glass of tap water.


Ride away from the cinema! Away!

There’s an incredibly conceited atmosphere to Summer in February, as if writer Jonathan Smith feels like the fact he is name-dropping famous artists and telling a version of true events excuses him from having to develop characters or story. All of his cast happen to be exactly what he needs them to be at any given moment. Things seem to happen purely because the historical record suggested that they happened, not because they flow from the characters on the screen.

Consider the example of Munnings. Dominic Cooper has never quite been able to make a convincing leading man, but he’s saddled with a terrible script. He’s charged with playing a version of Munnings who is capable of being all sorts of charming and rascally until the script needs to turn him into a psychologically abusive would-be rapist in order to raise the dramatic stakes. It doesn’t matter that this change feels incredibly contrived and convenient, and that there’s not too much foreshadowing beyond “he’s an artist, and I guess the stereotype is that they’re temperamental.”

But his hat is tilted! it's so edgy!

But his hat is tilted! it’s so edgy!

Munnings isn’t a character so much as a plot device the script can wind up and release whenever it needs some dramatic tension. He’s just a way for the film to make us feel sorry for Florence Carter-Wood. Despite the fact that Cooper gets top billing, Emily Browing plays the real focal point of the story. However, Carter-Wood is even less of a character than Munnings. At least Munnings gets to generate some plot, cause some events that ripple through the film. Even if his motivations and characterisation shift from scene to scene, at least he has some.

Unfortunately for Browning, who tries her level best, Carter-Wood really just exists so the movie can kick her around to make us feel sorry for her. Yes, the stuff she goes through is pretty damn terrible, but the movie never really figures out why she’s worthy of our interest. The movie seems to assume that if Carter-Wood can provoke our sympathy, she might hold our interest. It doesn’t work, because there’s nothing intrinsically interesting about Carter-Wood as a character in this film. She’s not a character, she’s an object that things happen to because this is a movie.

Don't worry, it'll be over soon...

Don’t worry, it’ll be over soon…

One assumes that something in the true story appealed to writer Smith, even if he can’t quite bring it out. Instead, we have a movie about thinly-drawn sketches assuring each other (and the audience) that everybody in this community is a “genius” of some form or another. Only Hattie Morahan manages to breathe a little life into the film as Laura Knight. Glimpsed only occasionally, she’s the only character here who seems like more than a shadow attached to a relatively famous name.

Instead, the script is lazy. Lots of scenes of people riding horses and painting pictures. People talk in that stereotypically “period” manner, but without any of the lyrical quality of the best faux period writing. “Just remember that I’m your friend,” Munnings advises Gilbert Evans, “even if I am a bit of cad.” At the same time, despite that, the ridiculously over-the-top “we’re in old England” scripting makes the scene of characters trying decide if they want some cake an unintentional comic highlight. I would watch an entire movie of Nicholas Farrell politely asking for only a sliver of cake with that impressive moustache. It certainly beats the movie we got.

Yeah, you're gonna need a lot more of that...

Yeah, you’re gonna need a lot more of that…

Oh, if only we had more of that flirtation if over-the-touble wallowing-in-the-terribleness-of-it-all. The worst thing about Summer in February is how damn conceited it is. It asks us to look at Dominic Cooper’s ever-so-slightly-tilted Trilby and imagine that we are looking into the soul of a tortured artist. Director Christopher Menaul tries to mine the maximum possible energy out of the image of Munnings stabbing a canvas with his brush. Some of that focus and intensity might have been better served in some of those scenes of people walking and staring into middle distance.

It isn’t that pace is glacial, the characters are non-existent and the drama feels entirely forced. It’s that Summer in February seems to feel no shame about any of this. There’s the sense, watching all those pensive long shots of beautiful English countryside that we’re supposed to be watching some great tragedy play itself out. The movie feels so incredibly and infuriating smug, as if claiming to possess some deep and mysterious insight into historical events, making its resounding emptiness all the more dissatisfying.

Make a note to avoid it...

Make a note to avoid it…

Summer in February feels like a re-heated leftover, a period drama script from the deepest and darkest recesses of the “rejected” pile in the BBC that somehow managed to worm its way past the high quality of that station and into a theatrical release.

4 Responses

  1. You didn’t even mention Dan Stevens….

    • Sorry Liz! He was grand, as much as anybody in the film could be. He was stuck with the same dreadful script as everybody else. It’s hard to get too invested when his big emotional outburst involves him yelling about having to eat horse soup. (Although I did like his accent, it kinda reminded me of Iain Glen.)

  2. Spot on. 10 minutes in I found myself cringing at the Pretentiousness of it all. And cooper just plays a smug little twit. It’s one of those films where you wanted a bomb to go off to kill off all the 2d characters. I don’t think anyone would have cared.

    Oh, didn’t people talk with a Cornish accent in the late 1800’s?

    • I would have been glad to get home earlier.

      Although I didn’t mind the lack of accents. I can accept that as a break from reality. (Like foreigners speaking English for the audience’s benefit.)

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