There is no doubt that setting can inform character, with the surroundings and mood of a time and place, coming to bear on those living and interacting with those elements. But there needs to be some dimension to the characters on the page first, as no amount of costume design, set decoration or beautifully composed landscape shots can mask thin writing. And it’s a lesson that veteran TV and movie director Christopher Menaul seemed to have forgotten when making “Summer In February,” a handsomely dull romantic drama penned by author Jonathan Smith (based on his own book), in which characters totter around the beautiful English countryside wringing their hands over their lot, but without doing much about it.
Based on a true story, the film is set in the early 1910s, with World War I looming on the horizon, in the pleasant looking Larmona Cove, where an artist colony thrives, led by the charismatic A.J. Munnings (Dominic Cooper). A man who commands attention whatever room he sets foot in, he’s a painter, poetry enthusiast and generally a rascal, who seems to be at the center of anything exciting in Lamorna. But the arrival of Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning), in Lamorna to visit her brother and learn to paint, changes everything. Soon she’s grabbed the attentions of both Munnings and his best friend Gilbert (Dan Stevens), a land agent who rents lodgings to the artists in Lamorna, and a part-time soldier too.
And thus begins a rather tedious dance between three characters who are stymied by their own aggravating lack of inaction, in a movie that already gives them very little to do. So busy is Smith and Menaul setting up their story that anything resembling believable motivation is left behind. While it’s clear why Munnings takes an interest in Florence—she’s gorgeous and cultured—it’s never clear why the reverse is true. The justification seems to be that Munnings will become an important artist (the movie spares no shortage of characters declaring how great of an artist Munnings is and how he has big things ahead of him), but from the start she seems miserable in his company, and things only get worse. And when Gilbert learns of her unhappiness, even as she gets engaged and then married, he stays firmly in the friend zone, stoically providing a shoulder to cry on.
If the tone were pitched just a bit further, “Summer In February” could easily be a parody of the stereotypical “British film.” A period setting, with characters who have little to do most days but eat meals, attend gatherings and talk a lot about their unhappiness while never daring to break any form of decorum, there is something in this film about social structures, relationships and the role of women in early Britain. But in a movie that’s barely articulate about the emotions that will spill into tragedy later on, it’s hardly a surprise the material can’t probe deeper than the surface story about some good-looking, talented and smart people who are utterly incapable of relating their feelings to each other. And it’s hard to relate to these characters who react to their situation by treating each other cruelly or capriciously (Florence denies Munnings sex, Munnings ignores her pleas for fidelity and Gilbert chooses to flee to his next available military opening).
If there is anything that keeps the lethargic “Summer In February” somewhat engaging, it’s the performances by the three leads who are giving their all to material that boxes them in to nearly non-existent arcs right from the start. And the lensing by Andrew Dunn (“The Perks Of Being A Wallflower,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Precious“) beautifully captures the breezy, coastal setting. But those can only sustain so long as a “Summer In February” eventually settles into a dull routine much like the dissatisfied characters of the film, which will make for an easily dissatisfied audience. [D]