Sir Alfred James "A.J." Munnings (1878-1959) held court as one of the most successful and prolific British painters of his era. Munnings rose from a working-class background and established himself as a charter member of the Newlyn School colony -- a clique of artists based in a fishing village near Penzance, Cornwall, who celebrated a natural, outdoor aesthetic reminiscent of Barbizon in France. In many circles, Munnings has since been excoriated for his lifelong eschewing of modernism and contemporaneity on the canvas. It might not even be a stretch to tag him as the Thomas Kinkade of England -- a journeyman hack who was devoted to reproducing, ad nauseam and sans any innovation, subjects of personal obsession such as equines and gypsies.
Director Christopher Menaul and scribe Jonathan Smith's onscreen evocation of Munnings in the biographical drama Summer in February -- an adaptation of Smith's 1995 novel -- not only reinforces one's sense of the artist as a peon, but won't win him any fans on a personal level either. As played by Dominic Cooper (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), Munnings comes off here as a vain, egotistical, loudmouthed boor who rained misery and suffering on those who drifted into his circle, particularly Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning of Sleeping Beauty), a tender-spirited young artist. The drama depicts Florence accepting his hand in marriage not long after making his acquaintance, despite her soul-mate ties to military officer Gilbert Evans (Dan Stevens) and Evans' reciprocal longing for her. Eternal triangle, indeed: The marriage wreaks havoc on the lives of all concerned and erupts into the anticipated tragedies.
This is a fine, interesting story to tell and the three young leads are more than capable of clearing the bar in terms of dramatic performance, but Smith is not a born screenwriter (this is his first time at bat) and he keeps flubbing on the fundamentals. We get the requisite emotional sweep throughout, thanks to Benjamin Wallfisch's histrionic score, but the inner-connectedness of the characters' actions seems conspicuously absent, their motivations lost to us. The examples are almost too numerous to mention. In particular: It isn't sufficient for Smith to convey in a single expository line of dialogue that Carter-Wood is emotionally and psychologically unstable; we need to understand how and why she is damaged, and climb inside of her delusions about herself and her external relationships in order to accept her rejection of Evans’ hand and headlong rush into nuptials with Munnings. As presented here, and coupled with Munnings’ insufferableness, the engagement and subsequent wedding seem not merely illogical but baseless and insane. Neither can we comprehend Alfred's insistence -- once he and Florence have married and moved to another city, far from Newlyn -- on their moving back to Penzance and being closer to Gilbert's social circle, which seems like a lame excuse to set up the drama's final conflicts and tragedies. It isn't enough to reason that Munnings is a born abuser; his sadism needs to be rooted in something specific, some twisted aim that he hopes to accomplish in a deviant manipulation of Florence and Gilbert, or a grandiose self-deception that pushes him headfirst into masochism. As a result, when Gilbert eventually threatens to leave the area and Alfred pleads, "Don't go! I need you! Florence needs you!" we have no idea which of his own needs he's talking about.
What does deliver to a surprising degree -- effectively saving the movie from being a complete misfire -- is the gently stirring, low-key love affair between Gilbert and Florence, which, to Menaul and Smith's credit, goes all but undeclared for much of the film's first hour. One finds oneself swept up in the magnetism of the lovers' bond, and it was a prudent decision on Smith's part to use Florence's artistic maturation as a literal manifestation of her adoration of Gilbert. The production design and cinematography (by Sophie Becher and Andrew Dunn, respectively) are also sumptuous; Dunn's work actually invites comparison to Sten Holmberg's contributions to Kjell Grede's artist-colony drama Hip Hip Hurrah! (1987). Like Holmberg, Dunn finds a cinematographic equivalent for the en plein air style of the painters whose lives he is dramatizing, and that's a commendable and magnificent accomplishment. It's a shame that these assets are all but drowned out by the movie's many faults; the strengths should exist at the service of a more mature and effective motion picture.
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- Released: 2013
- Rating: NR
- Review: Sir Alfred James "A.J." Munnings (1878-1959) held court as one of the most successful and prolific British painters of his era. Munnings rose from a working-class background and established himself as a charter member of the Newlyn School colony -- a cliqu… (more)