On the eve of World War 1, a group of artists and painters gathered in Cornwall with the intent of furthering their art. When the sister of one of their number, Florence (Emily Browning) arrives, it is not long before Gilbert (Dan Stevens) falls in love with her, but before he gets a chance to declare his love, she hastily agrees to marry AJ (Dominic Cooper). It is not long before Florence begins to feel trapped by the handsome but volatile artist and starts to question what the future holds.
Based on a true story that was then written as a novel, Summer in February is a film that has been in the making for several years, the problem is that what was on the page to make a strong book has not translated to the screen.
Dominic Cooper is having a helluva run lately, but his role as AJ is not one that makes best use of his talent as an actor. Starting out, AJ is the magnetic centre of attention, but his transformation into a sarcastic and selfish husband – even though we have seen touches of his narcissism throughout the film – is so sudden that it throws the film off track for several minutes. AJ is not a character that wins a lot of sympathy thorough the film, but when he is revealed as a cruel man, any mystery that was created is stripped away.
Emily Browning as Florence, the woman caught between two lovers, comes across as little short of vapid. It is hard to understand Florence’s allure, even though Browning is a beautiful woman, and even less easy to understand why she decides to stay in a union that is destroying her. Browning does not allow Florence to show any strength, and diminishes the appeal of the character. It is great to see the actress try to expand her range, but period drama is not one of her strong suits, evidently.
The only actor who is given any room to breathe is Dan Stevens as the tragic Gilbert. Having made his name in Downton Abbey, it is clear that period drama suits the actor, and he allows Gilbert to be charming and tragic as he pursues a doomed love affair.
Director Christopher Menaul has spent much of his career working in TV, and it shows. The pacing of the film is a rollercoaster that allows for little emotional payoff. As well as this, the characters are not delineated strongly enough or quickly enough for the audience to understand or care about them. Beautiful cinematography does not make up for the vapid and disengaging story.
Summer in February sets itself up to be a sweeping romantic drama, full of tension and tragedy, but the story lands with a whimper due to vapid characters, messy pacing and unexpected character motivation that jars and unsettles.