(1.5 / 5)
If there’s one thing the British film industry has over our brasher, better-financed American cousins, it’s our monopoly over the formal period drama.
Summer in February is a fictionalized account of the documented love triangle between aspiring artist Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning), land agent Captain Gilbert Evans (Dan Stevens) and rural painter AJ Munnings (Dominic Cooper). Set in the artist’s commune of Lamorna in early 20th Century Cornwall, Christopher Menaul’s film opens on a sunny day spreading its diffuse light over the rocky cliffs as a naked figure poses on the rocks for the painter’s brush.
It is here that Browning’s Florence arrives, seeking freedom from an genteely authoritarian father (Nicholas Farrell) who wishes to marry her off. Her brother Joey (Max Deacon) has already set a place for her in the community and it’s he who introduces her to the various local celebrities.
Her first appearance is made, in fact, during a reading of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven by the hell-raising AJ, an artist in the Dylan Thomas mode. That her knocking on the door coincides with that which occurs in the poem could hardly, given its theme of the lovely but doomed young woman, be more inauspicious. Soon enough, Florence is presented with a choice of paramours between the tortured but brilliant AJ and the gallant Gilbert, an unassuming war veteran.
While it’s arguable this represents the warring forces present in society at that time, one of the film’s flaws is that you never want Florence to end up with anyone but Gilbert. AJ may be exciting but he’s also a pretentious asshole, declaiming poetry at starstruck interlopers in the pub; Gilbert is a fundamentally decent bloke, if perhaps a little dull. There’s an intriguing bit about Florence becoming one of AJ’s women whose paintings hang on the walls of the Royal Academy, but in context, it all feels a bit uninspiring.
If Florence is a tragic figure, we can’t help but feel it’s because she makes terrible decisions. As such, when she chooses to take cyanide not once but twice, the first time on her wedding night to AJ, the second when she falls pregnant with Gilbert’s child, it feels like the act of a woman who’s made her bed and can neither sleep in it nor find the will to escape.
As a woman in her time, her passivity is perhaps forgivable; as a protagonist, it’s less than enthralling. A transition from Florence sprawled on the floor to waves breaking on the Cornish coast has the effect of illumes her form as in classical depictions of Ophelia. While Florence is certainly more sinned against than sinning, the comparison just draws attention to how watery and ill-defined she is as a character.
Summer in February is, of course, bound to historical events – as she did, so must she do – but it’s frustrating when there seems to be a far more moving romantic story so close to hand: the relationship between Harold and Laura Knight (Shaun Dingwall and Hattie Morahan), meanwhile, is a delicate one, full of unspoken trust and respect.
The problem, perhaps, with Britain’s dominance in the period romance genre is that we’ve become complacent about it. We make lovely-looking films full of passionately reserved people and expect that to be enough. In this case, however, it just isn’t.