Tribeca Film via Everett Collection
For a film that involves a love triangle, mental illness, a Bohemian colony of free-spirits, an impending war and several important historical figures, the most exciting elements of Summer in February are the stunning shots of the English country and Cornish seaside. The rest of the film never quite lives up to the crashing waves and sun-dappled meadows that are used to bookend the scenes, as the entertaining opening never manages to coalesce into a story that lives up the the cinematography, let alone the lives of the people that inspired it.
Set in an Edwardian artist’s colony in Cornwall, Summer in February tells the story of A.J. Munnings (Dominic Cooper), who went on to become one of the most famous painters of his day and head of the Royal Academy of Art, his best friend, estate agent and part-time soldier Gilbert Evans (Dan Stevens), and the woman whom they both loved, aspiring artist Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning). Her marriage to Munnings was an extremely unhappy one, and she attempted suicide on their honeymoon, before killing herself in 1914. According to his journals, Gilbert and Florence were madly in love, although her marriage and his service in the army kept them apart.
When the film begins, Munnings is the center of attention in the Lamorna Artist's Colony, dramatically reciting poetry at parties and charming his way out of his bar tab while everyone around him proclaims him to be a genius. When he’s not drinking or painting, he’s riding horses with Gilbert, who has the relatively thankless task of keeping this group of Bohemians in line. Their idyllic existence is disrupted by the arrival of Florence, who has run away from her overbearing father and the fiancé he had picked out for her in order to become a painter.
Stevens and Browning both start the film solidly, with enough chemistry between them to make their infatuation interesting. He manages to give Gilbert enough dependable charm to win over both Florence and the audience, and she presents Florence as someone with enough spunk and self-possession to go after what she wants. Browning’s scenes with Munnings are equally entertaining in the first third of the film, as she can clearly see straight through all of his bravado and he is intrigued by her and how difficult she is to impress. Unfortunately, while the basis of the love triangle is well-established and entertaining, it takes a sudden turn into nothing with a surprise proposal from Munnings.
Neither the film nor Browning ever make it clear why Florence accepts his proposal, especially when they have both taken great pains to establish that she doesn’t care much for him. But once she does, the films stalls, and both Stevens and Browning spend the rest of the film doing little more than staring moodily and longingly at the people around them. The real-life Florence was plagued by depression and mental instability, but neither the film nor Browning’s performance ever manage to do more than give the subtlest hint at that darkness. On a few occasions, Browning does manage to portray a genuine anguish, but rather than producing any sympathy from the audience, it simply conjures up images of a different film, one that focused more on Florence, and the difficulties of being a woman with a mental illness at a time when both were ignored or misunderstood.
Stevens is fine, and Gilbert starts out with the same kind of good-guy appeal the won the heart of Mary Crawley and Downton Abbey fans the world over. However, once the film stalls, so does his performance, and he quickly drops everything that made the character attractive or interesting in favor of longing looks and long stretches of inactivity. He does portray a convincing amount of adoration for Florence, although that's about the only real emotion that Gilbert expresses for the vast majority of the film, and even during his love scene, he never manages to give him any amount of passion.
Cooper does his best with what he’s given, and tries his hardest to imbue the film with some substance and drama. His Munnings is by turns charming, brash, and brooding, the kind of person who has been told all of their life that they are special, and believes it. He even manages to give the character some depth, and even though he and Browning have very little chemistry, he manages to convey a genuine affection for her. It’s a shame that Munnings becomes such a deeply unlikable character, because Cooper is the only thing giving Summer in February a jolt of life – even if it comes via bursts of thinly-explained hostility. It's hard to watch just how hard he's working to connect with his co-stars and add some excitement to a lifeless script and not wish that he had a better film to show off his talents in.
Unfortunately, by the time Florence and Gilbert are finally spurred into activity, the film has dragged on for so long that you’re no longer invested in the characters, their pain, or their love story, even if you want to be. Which is the real disappointment of Summer in February; underneath the stalled plot and the relatively one-note acting, there are glimmers of a fascinating and compelling story that’s never allowed to come to the forefront.
In the summer of 1990 after graduating from Emory University with grades good enough to get into Harvard Law upper-middle-class 22-year-old Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) gave his $24 000 life savings to Oxfam and hit the open road. Christening himself Alexander Supertramp the idealistic McCandless proceeded to wander the country's highways and byways for two years before striking out alone into the wilds of Alaska. Anyone who's read the Jon Krakauer book knows what happened then but those who are new to McCandless' story will be holding their breath as his journey progresses toward its sadly inevitable end. The beauty of director Sean Penn's film is the route it takes to get there introducing viewers to the people Chris touched during his travels and making it clear what he learned about love and forgiveness along the way. The success of a movie like Into the Wild depends disproportionately on the talents of its star. Luckily Hirsch doesn't disappoint. Simultaneously charismatic and aloof he makes Chris both an enigma and an Everyman. Whether he's exulting in a panoramic view of the Alaskan wilderness shooting roiling river rapids (impressively no stunt doubles were used) or learning how to operate a combine machine Chris/Alex is completely aware--and appreciative--of every new experience life brings him. His quest for truth and authenticity affects everyone he meets from hippie couple Jan (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian Dierker) to fast-talking entrepreneur Wayne (Vince Vaughn) and lonely leather worker Ron Frazer (Hal Holbrook). Meanwhile representing Chris' abandoned conflict-ridden homefront Jena Malone provides heartfelt nuanced voice-over narration as Chris' sister Carine. Filming Into the Wild was a labor of love for Penn and his affection for the material shows in every frame. Like Chris Penn and cinematographer Eric Gautier rhapsodize over sweeping vistas and pristine countryside lingering on the way sunlight glints on water droplets and the beauty of a freshly harvested field. Penn is in no hurry to tell Chris' tale; he lets it unfold naturally its rhythm matching the ebbs and flows of Chris' journey. Aiding him every step of the way is the film's powerful soundtrack which features original music by Eddie Vedder. Whether building momentum or accompanying Chris in moments of quiet contemplation the film's music is the traveling companion Chris doesn't realize he needs until it's too late. Blending sympathy for Chris' motives with regret for his tragic end; Into the Wild is a thoughtful biopic that's both inspiring and chastening.