Equestrian artist Alfred Munnings’ love affair and disastrous marriage to aspiring painter Florence Carter-Wood is the subject of Christopher Menaul’s involving costume drama Summer in February (2013). It’s 1912 and Munnings (Dominic Cooper) is a prominent member of the bohemian Lamorna Group, a colony of artists living and practising their craft in Cornwall. Fleeing London, an oppressive father and an unwanted suitor, Florence (Emily Browning) joins her brother here. Her fragile beauty and sensitive nature consequently attract the attention of local land agent and army officer Gilbert Evans (Dan Stevens).
A prolific painter, Munnings is much admired by others in the colony, including acclaimed artists, Laura (Hattie Morahan) and Harold Knight (Shaun Dingwall). Munnings can have any woman he desires but is also drawn to Florence. She models for him and before long he is proposing marriage. Florence accepts but the couple discover, too late, that their hasty courtship obscures a multitude of differences. He likes a drink and enjoys, equally, the company of horsemen and gypsies. Florence suffers from depression and is perturbed by Munnings’ womanising nature. During their wedding reception, Florence realises she has married the wrong man and that the order she thought she was escaping is what she most wants.
Although he remained outspoken throughout his life, Munnings became an establishment figure in the art world (elected President of the Royal Academy in 1944 and knighted the same year) so Summer in February’s portrait of his unruly, bohemian early years is both provocative and enlightening. The love story at its heart is based on Gilbert’s diaries, adapted by Jonathan Smith’s from his book of the same name, and based on true events. What’s more, Menaul perfectly captures the period just before the First World War; pre-Modernism, a world lacking moral certainties.
However, there are a few irritating inconsistencies, mainly to do with the characters’ lack of credible motivations and bewildering inaction at crucial moments, which one can only presume is the result of sloppy script editing. These caveats aside, it’s beautifully shot by award-winning cinematographer Andrew Dunn – the Cornish coast providing an atmospheric backdrop to the drama – and the performances are top notch. For fans of Downton Abbey, an added bonus will be seeing co-producer Stevens excel in another romantic leading role.