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Summer in February
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by Jay Seaver

"A portrait that captures the world, if not the passions."
3 stars

"Summer in February" takes place in 1913 Cornwall, which had become an artists' colony, and in some ways that community is more interesting than any of the people in it. There's nothing wrong with the story the filmmakers are trying to tell or the characters involved, but there are interesting details to the scenes of people being a community that make the love triangle at the center of the movie seem kind of generic by comparison.

That main story has Florence Carter Wood (Emily Browning) coming to Cornwall to live with her brother Joey (Max Deacon) and study painting, though she's pretty enough that some of the artists would have her model as well. One who does is AJ Munnings (Dominic Cooper), a brilliant painter who is as confident of his abilities as he is loud in pubs. His opposite in terms of temperament is Captain Gilbert Evans (Dan Stevens), a handsome reservist who connects these artists with spaces to rent. AJ and Gilbert are friends, but someone like Florence can shake up that status quo.

Fortunately, Florence is not just there to be a thing that brings two men into conflict, but a person who, when she's at her best, can push back at AJ and likely has the potential to become a fine artist herself. She'd likely be diagnosed with something and medicated to help regulate it today, and Emily Browning does well in portraying that sort of fragility as well as the way that Florence is, as they would say then, a sheltered young woman who does not know much of the world. Browning may not quite make Florence the center of the movie, but she does let the viewer see why she can attract through her strength despite a big dollop of insecurity.

Still, it is Dominic Cooper who gets to have the big performance, and he does fairly well there, although AJ may become more abrasive than appealing a little earlier than was intended. He does at least dive into things like showing off by reciting poetry with gusto, and there is the air of the great artist about him, rather than just being told he's brilliant as explanation for his being an ass. Dan Stevens, almost inevitably, must play the contrasting very properly English fellow who seems to keep his feelings bottled up, although that's not really the case. Gilbert doesn't make many grand declarations, but Stevens has a way of not just making sure they come through, but making it feel like this left-brained soldier still belongs among the artists and models without making him one of them. His non-patronizing fondness seems like little, but is appreciated.

It's unfortunate, then, that this love triangle seems to have so little drama. Things happen, and they don't necessarily come out of left field, but they often seem to happen just because that is how these situations work; my mind flashed to Bertie Wooster lamenting that when one is asked to marry, one must, only without the awareness that these social formalities were a bit absurd. Writer Jonathan Smith seems more hemmed in than usual by his story's real-life origins, afraid to embellish or fill in gaps to make the story more dramatic and less rote. In that way, it's perhaps fitting that most of the artists are portraitists uninterested in Picasso's abstraction.

And yet, this tendency toward portraiture often serves the movie well. Director Christopher Menaul has a knack for capturing the details of his setting, from the beauty of the Cornish cliffs to the details of an Edwardian banquet hall. I found myself nodding at a quick scene of townspeople scandalized by a girl modeling nude on the beach but knowing it keeps their town running. Scenes of the community gathering in pubs and salons seem to have unusual authenticity rather than just being a nostalgic recreation of how folks gathered and interacted before the likes of radio and cinema made entertainment passive (though they are fascinating for showing that). Even when characters bow out because they're no longer needed, a story is implied.

Doing those things well and having a cast that fares well enough in making the characters worthy of the audience's interest makes "Summer in February" an enjoyable period piece. That the characters involved had a fairly conventional and predictable affair perhaps can't be helped, which is often a fitting comment for this type of costume drama.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=26002&reviewer=371
originally posted: 01/11/14 12:01:32
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USA
  17-Jan-2014

UK
  14-Jun-2013 (15)

Australia
  17-Jan-2014




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