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Summer in February review: Dan Stevens, Dominic Cooper in period drama

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Released on Friday, Jun 14 2013

Director: Christopher Menaul; Screenwriter: Jonathan Smith; Starring: Dan Stevens, Dominic Cooper, Emily Browning, Hattie Morahan; Running time: 100 mins; Certificate: 15


Unrequited love is the stuff of great art, as evidenced in this portrait of the Lamorna group, named after a spot on the Cornish coast that inspired them. Dominic Cooper is the leader of this Edwardian pack and a proper enfant terrible as AJ Munnings, a painter on his way up in the world as the Great War looms. The film itself is no masterwork, but it has a certain irresistible undertow.

Emily Browning anchors the story as Florence, a newcomer to this bohemian enclave who dreams of being an artist, but lacks the spirit of abandon that appears to be a prerequisite. Munnings, on the other hand, is full of it. He veers close to pomposity as he strides about the local pub reciting poetry, but it's enough to turn Florence's head and she agrees to sit for him in return for being schooled.

Dan Stevens, Emily Browning in Summer in February

Dan Stevens and Emily Browning

Very obviously, Munnings has other, extracurricular activities on his mind, but Florence is a lady. He paints her, literally, on a high horse and she struggles with her own sexuality, barely able to look at herself naked in the mirror. It's a tricky role for Browning who, initially, seems to know her own mind, only to then appear prissy and foolish when Munnings sweeps her off her feet.

This doesn't stop Florence indulging in some light flirting with Gilbert, the land agent of the Lamorna estate and Munnings's best pal. He's played with customary stiff upper lip and plenty of tweed by Dan Stevens of TV's Downton Abbey, and he trades on that image, refusing to bow to his emotions or betray his friend - only throwing a few daggers in Florence's direction.

Stevens has the appeal of an injured puppy and Florence becomes increasingly difficult to empathise with. What's more interesting, though, is that Munnings - for all his flaws - eventually begins to look like the victim of the piece. His love is real, albeit twisted, and by the time Florence realises her mistake, she has them both trapped in a cold, sexless marriage.

The sudden switches of emotion and the spectacularly bad timing are pure soap opera, but they are based on actual events (suggesting that Florence did have a flair for the theatrical). Frustratingly, though, the quieter scenes, behind closed doors, don't have as big an impact, so those grand gestures only serve to make Florence appear as self-indulgent as her husband.

In trying to fill the gaps between documented incidents, director Christopher Menaul (a TV veteran) and source writer Jonathan Smith (adapting his own book) seem unsure. The dialogue is serviceable to drive the plot, but it's not truly revealing. Menaul and Smith even risk defaming their heroine by casting her as the architect of her own ruin, as well as hurting those who loved her.

Florence is undeniably a tragic figure and her anguish set against the crashing Cornish waves evokes a suitably misty, romantic feel. If only the men who tried to represent her could see through that, this might have justified the big screen canvas. Instead, it's an excuse to wallow in slushy sentiment and Edwardian glamour - best suited to a rainy day at home in the English summer.

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