Summer in February
Directed by Christopher Menaul
Script by Jonathan Smith from his own novel
Dan Stevens first venture after Downton Abbey surprised me. It got mainly negative reviews, which is why we’d left it to see at the local community cinema on a Monday evening. We expected to see a dozen people, but it was two-thirds full, and the buzz afterwards was highly positive.
The film is set among the Lamorna Group, an artists’ group in Newlyn, Cornwall just before World War One, and is based on a true story about the artist A.J. Munnings, a painter who was famous for his horses. He later became Sir Alfred Munnings, RA.. It’s a love triangle, with the avowedly Bohemian Munnings (Dominic Cooper) competing for the affections of young painter Florence Carter-Wood (played by Emily Browning) with ex-army officer Gilbert Evans (played by Dan Stevens), who is now the land agent running the estate.
The film is based on Jonathan Smith’s novel, and Smith taught Dan Stevens at school, and directed him in school plays, joking that if his book ever got made into a film, Dan Stevens would be the perfect Gilbert. It has been made it a film. Stevens plays Gilbert.
Those negative reviews. They found it extravagantly-costumed with beautiful scenery, but slow moving and somewhat light on plot. The same could be applied to any Jane Austen film, though that wouldn’t have the beautiful scenery: dramatic Cornish coastline at various times of day in its favour. The film is interspersed with cliffs and seascapes and beaches and rocks and craggy promontories, which must have been a Godsend to the director as it could all be done without the nuisance of actors around. It was filmed in the real locations and in the winter of 2012.
Florence Parker-Woods (Emily Browning) and A.J. Munnings (Dominic Cooper)
The three lead actors are all engaging. Given 1913 costumes, an Army greatcoat at the end, and a lovable, caring, sympathetic soulful character, the cast could be forgiven for addressing Dan Stevens’ ‘Gilbert’ as ‘Matthew Crawley’ in error. Dan Stevens does it impeccably. The resemblance is such that when he drives off as a passenger in an open-topped 1913 car you expect it to round a bend and crash. See Downton Abbey Series 10: The Curse of The Crawleys elsewhere on this blog!
Dominic Cooper is suitably raffish, unshaven and piratically smiling for A.J. Munnings, but comes across to me as more interesting than the real painter of horses would have been. Munnings may have gone on to be president of the Royal Academy but his work is not far off greeting card fare to me, even if the light impressionism may have been more challenging at the time. Fellow artists Laura and Harold Knight’s Lamorna paintings (assuming it’s what adorns their walls in the film) looks a lot better, which is why it’s odd that they refer to mundane Munnings as a genius. But Dominic Cooper certainly plays him well as such. Shame about the artwork. There is a little time-travel projection in the script, where Munnings rubbishes Picasso, as the real one was to do over thirty years later in an alcohol-fuelled speech at the Royal Academy.
Gilbert Evans (Dan Stevens) and Florence Parker-Woods (Emily Browning)
Emily Browning is a touching and vulnerable Florence, caught between the two close friends. She marries A.J. then realizes what he’s like … an unpleasant egotist and aggressive drunk …and gravitates to Gilbert.
I found the film charming, well acted, exquisitely lit and filmed. It’s not a “great movie” by any stretch, but it is a well-constructed, touching and well-made movie. It might have been a poor career move for Stevens, demonstrating nothing new, or it might be a gentle way of easing from TV to cinema, Some reviews suggest it looks a bit TV movie. Actually, I think the subtlety of filming is enhanced by the big screen.
The picture A.J. Munnings is seen painting in the film (here) is central to the story, and features Florence on horseback.
A genuine A.J. Munnings painting (the light IS more interesting)