A love triangle entraps fiery artists and lovelorn toffs in “Summer in February,” a British Edwardian-era drama that boasts no shortage of pretty production design, eye-candy costumes and staggering seascapes, but lays on the melodrama with thick impasto strokes. A poor script and patchy performances make the film feel considerably more turgid than its 101-minute running time would suggest. Almost surgically designed to appeal to fans of TV’s “Downton Abbey,” especially given the presence of former “Downton” star Dan Stevens (also one of the producers), “Summer” has earned a balmy $300,000 since its June 14 niche bow, attracting older audiences and particularly strong support in the southwestern region of Blighty where it’s mainly set.
Although the script was adapted by Jonathan Smith from his own novel of the same name, the story is based on real characters and events and seems largely faithful to them, perhaps to the film’s disservice. The action starts in 1913 Cornwall, long famed as a habitat for artists seeking striking landscapes and mostly clement weather, although meteorologically accurate rainstorms crop up from time to time. A colony of free-thinking artists have set up their easels in the region and spend their days daubing, their nights drinking.
Rough-mannered, East Anglian-born miller’s son Arthur “A.J.” Munnings (Dominic Cooper, a bit too shouty) is the lead carouser-in-chief, and is considered by the set (and not least by himself) to be the most talented artist of the lot. He already has a growing reputation for his impressionism-influenced depictions of various subjects, especially horses.
Munnings is good friends with the local land agent, Capt. Gilbert Evans, an honorable, upper-middle-class Rugby graduate played by Stevens, who has basically made minor adjustments here to his Matthew Crawley persona in “Downton Abbey,” adding a touch more sheepishness but keeping the dashing military uniform and the sad, watery eyes. When comely high-born filly Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning) arrives in the area to pursue her own artistic ambitions, both men compete for her affections.
The script’s biggest failing is that it never satisfactorily explains why Florence chooses, a third of the way in, to marry Munnings rather than Evans, with whom she’s so much more obviously compatible. Perhaps audiences are supposed to read her as some kind of pre-Great War art groupie, too in awe of Munnings’ talent to decline his proposal. In any case, she soon realizes she’s backed the wrong horse and droops about for the rest of the film, flirting with suicide, and basically playing the proto-feminist victim, frustrated both romantically and career-wise by her domineering husband.
With her bone-white skin and rosebud mouth, Browning is physically well cast as a particular type of Edwardian beauty, but her performance lacks the necessary emotional range, and she too often comes off as petulant and annoying. In a way, she’s just as typecast here as Stevens is, given the run of masochistic doll-women she’s played recently in “Sleeping Beauty” and “Sucker Punch.” Peripheral characters like fellow artist Laura Knight (Hattie Morahan) and artists’ model Dolly (Mia Austen) are often more colorful and compelling, which may leave some viewers wishing someone had made a movie about them instead of whiny Florence, dull Gilbert and pompous Munnings.
Art history-savvy viewers will also be somewhat amused to find Munnings depicted here as rebel, as his biography reveals that he eventually became the head of the ultra-establishment Royal Academy, was great friends with Winston Churchill, and took a hysterically reactionary stance against modernist art. Indeed, at one point in the film he calls Picasso “Piss-casso,” a rather lame joke indicative of the pic’s overall lack of humor.
Veteran helmer Christopher Menaul, whose long resume in TV costume drama makes him an apt enough choice for this material, competently marshals the craft departments to do sturdy work here. Nic Ede’s costumes and Sophie Becher’s production design draw out the post-William Morris look of the times without being too on the nose. And of course, the Cornish coastline provides stunning, surf-pounded locations that offer a major assist in terms of atmosphere, and probably repped a production nightmare.