Summer in February is the story of a brief period in the life of artist Sir Alfred James Munnings, adapted by Jonathan Smith from his own novel. In Lamorna on the coast of Cornwall, the artists of the Newlyn School colony led by Munnings (Dominic Cooper) enjoy a life of bohemian bliss as they spend their days lolling around on the beach, drinking into the wee hours of the morning and creating masterpieces. Things change however when aspiring young artist Florence (Emily Browning) arrives in the village, escaping a life in London domineered by her haughty father in favour of freedom, fresh air and learning. Her arrival catches the attention of womaniser Munnings as well as that of his best friend Gilbert (Dan Stevens), a land owner and army officer on leave and so a love triangle of secrets ensues. Florence falls for Munnings and his rough around the edges charm but when they become engaged, he soon shows his true colours. Will she fall into the arms of Gilbert instead?
Cooper portrays Munnings well, wearing a fedora cheekily tipped to one side and a big chip on his shoulder. He is a turbulent character, gifted, but brash with a fondness for women and alcohol and when he kisses Florence it is as though he is marking his territory. There is only a glimpse of his stunning work but his depiction as insecure and fiery makes you empathise with and despise him simultaneously. Browning brings her English rose persona to the character of Florence who arrives in the village following recovery from an undisclosed ‘illness.’ She makes a stunning muse for Munnings, windswept yet retaining her porcelain doll-like complexion. Whilst she has an air of innocence around her, she also has a quiet arrogance of her own, making her seem less vulnerable and more impassive and foolish when she goes ahead with her marriage to Munnings despite his mistreatment of her. Following his former success as Matthew Crawley in television series Downton Abbey, as Gilbert, Stevens stays well within his comfort zone. Gilbert is a warm character, but reserved and slightly dull, not putting up much of a fight to win his love until the bitter end, instead hovering in the background with a sullen look on his face.
The setting of the film is something glorious to observe, with the white beaches, jagged rocks and tumbling tides of the Cornish coast. It is a backdrop that goes some way to reflecting the lifestyle of the artists as they rebel against the village inhabitants by posing nude on the beach, skinny dipping and drunkenly quoting poetry. Much of this kind of melodrama settles in to the background early on to allow focus on the three protagonists, but then their story is drawn out a little too long. It is clear that much attention has been placed on character costume and it certainly stands out in all its Edwardian period finery, but sometimes over and above the action. It is a simple plot that begins to grate after a while, that is until the conclusion when events begin to speed up and take a different turn.
Like a fine piece of art, Summer in February is beautiful to gaze upon, but it needs a little more than beauty to keep you engaged.