We like our artists to be larger than life and preferably bohemian, even if nowadays we’ve had to accept that the ones we hear about are more likely to live in a castle than a garret. Sir Alfred Munnings (1878–1959) began life as an artist in true bohemian style, carousing with gypsies and horse-trainers, living rough and constantly on the road, painting at full-stretch. On form, he was a superb painter of horses and English country life, and although he is denigrated as a reactionary by the current art establishment, his paintings still sell for large sums. He ended up covered in honours as President of the Royal Academy, but remained a controversial figure, publicly damning modern art in a live broadcast from the RA banquet in 1949. This film is based on a little-known episode from his early life, when he lived at Lamorna in Cornwall, with a group of friends and models who included the painters Laura Knight and her husband Harold.
The opening sequence offers a close-up of a girl’s eyes cut with shots of a strongly running sea: love interest and uncontrollable forces are swiftly established. A potent score by Benjamin Wallfisch tunes the heart to romantic response, and the stage is set for a moving and highly enjoyable costume drama. Art is sexy these days, so Munnings is played by Dominic Cooper, irrepressible as an electric eel and twice as dangerous (to himself as much as to his friends), while his rival is the marvellously restrained Gilbert Evans, expressively played by Downton star Dan Stevens. The object of their opposing desires is tyro painter Florence Carter-Wood, interpreted to great effect with crisp surface and dark indecision by Emily Browning. The tragedy unfolds briskly in beautifully shot scenery and tempestuous weather. The story is engrossing, the direction (by Christopher Menaul) skilful and unobtrusive, the acting of high quality. There is a little art along the way.
The big problem with films about artists is usually the art. You can’t use valuable originals, so copies have to be made (not always good) and characters have to be shown making them. This is often unconvincing, though on occasion, as in the extraordinary tour-de-force of Ed Harris’s 2000 biopic Pollock, it appears utterly authentic. Summer in February largely avoids the issue by concentrating on the human drama, and making the art simply part of the fabric of the life depicted. This is an intelligent solution, backed up by good acting and decent copies — when Munnings (or AJ, as he’s known) does paint or draw, Dominic Cooper makes a good fist of it. Hattie Morahan as Laura Knight is an excellent foil, obviously in thrall to him but equally devoted to her quiet husband (tidily encapsulated by Shaun Dingwall) and her own art, and in general the supporting cast is superb. The dialogue fairly buzzes along. Take this exchange (about Munnings) between Gilbert and his boss: ‘Not a cad is he?’ ‘They tell me he’s a genius, sir.’ ‘Oh no, not another one.’
The screenplay is by Jonathan Smith, based on his novel of the same name published in 1995. I reviewed it when it came out and have just reread it, and it gets better all the time. In its evocation of artistic life in Cornwall before the first world war, the novel is inevitably subtler, more densely articulated and nuanced, more complete than the film. Whereas the film is primarily a love story, the book is only incidentally so. Translation into another medium requires radical restructuring and change of emphasis, but by simplifying you run the risk of coarsening or dumbing down. In fact, the film adheres fairly closely to the book’s narrative, though it has to dispense with much of the particularity. For instance, in the novel Florence is nicknamed ‘Blote’, and the word becomes a minor linguistic theme, the sort of thread that would be completely lost and out of place in a film; so it’s not mentioned. But other features are played up, and the full-tilt quality of Munnings’s genius is effectively implied through footage of seashore gallops.
Despite the bewitching looks of Emily Browning, roistering, crapulous Munnings steals the film, as he should. Dominic Cooper gives a menacing edge to his vulnerability and hints at greater emotional confusions. A couple of the best scenes are dominated by poetry, which AJ is much given to reciting: his spine-tingling rendition of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’, which is interrupted by Florence’s first appearance in Lamorna, and his pub-competition ‘Hiawatha’, when he ends up paying for the drinks with instant drawings. I loved this picturesque and pacey film, raw emotion surging about on the surface and in the depths, as vivid and visually complex as a Munnings masterpiece. If you also admire it, I recommend the book as a further delight.