One can usually count on movies about artists, in particular the great painters of our time, to fall into one of two categories. Either they focus on the craft itself, which can be a rather flat, dull experience nobody would pay to see. Or they center on an especially fertile part of the artist's life, inspired by a newfound love that ignites the creative passions. Summer in February leans heavily towards the latter, detailing a real-life love triangle with renowned painter Alfred Munnings at the center. While the film is gorgeously-shot and features a trio of sincere performances, there's a stunning lack of detail on the story's most notable historical figure.
Alas, this story isn't so much about Munnings (Dominic Cooper), the WWI artist best known for his dynamic equine images, but about his lover Florence Carter-Wood, played by Emily Browning. Her porcelain doll features make a perfect match for the fragile Florence, who arrives in the small Cornish colony of Lamorna where Munnings is the constant center of attention. He's best friends with Gilbert (Dan Stevens), a local land agent whose straight-arrow personality stands in stark contrast to Munnings' egotistical nature. The artists there, part of the Newlyn School, practice en plein air, a style that requires them to ply their trade under the open sky and as part of nature. Director Christopher Menaul, along with The Perks of Being a Wallflower DP Andrew Dunn relishes in the picturesque locale, in particular the crashing waves over the Cornish coastline, and the film is often as beautiful as a painting itself.
Initially attracted to the even-tempered Gilbert, Florence is quickly smitten by the charismatic, poetry-reading Munnings, who asks her to pose for one of his paintings, which turns out to be his famous The Morning Ride. It's pretty much all we see of his work, and we hear even less of his philosophy which didn't hold artists like Picasso in the highest regard. Cooper portrays Munnings as a likable blowhard, the life of the party and a man who recognized his superior talent. Florence, on the other hand, is a bit of a mess. The story mostly centers on her and what appears to be a case of severe depression caused by a string of bad choices. Stifled by a society where opportunities for women are few, she marries Munnings on a whim then instantly comes to regret it. Eventually she drifts back into the arms of Gilbert, causing friction between the two friends and sending Florence on an extremely dark path that may shock those who don't bother to read the Wikipedia entry.
Jason Smith adapted his own novel, showing a clear affection for the time period and this particular story of broken loyalties and inevitable heartbreak. While competently made and gorgeously shot, we are never privy to the inner life of any of these people. What drives Florence to take the drastic, deadly steps she takes repeatedly, including once on the night of her wedding? Is it her flightiness that drives Munnings over the edge? Or was her depression simply too much for him to overcome? We know next to nothing about Gilbert, other than he's a soldier and decent enough guy, if a little boring.
Cooper displays a powerful presence as Munnings, standing out amongst a cast that is excellent all around.Summer in February is a well-made costume drama that fans of Downton Abbey will probably appreciate, while those hoping to learn about Munnings will be better off hitting the nearest museum.