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For 'Downton' Obsessives: Dan Stevens in 'Summer in February'

Photo of Caryn James By Caryn James | James on Screens January 7, 2014 at 8:45AM

As I said in my review of Downton Abbey, Season 4, we all miss Matthew, and since Julian Fellowes has made it clear that the character is not coming back as a ghost, Summer in February is the closest we're likely to come to a post-death sighting.
Summer in February

As I said in my review of Downton Abbey, Season 4, we all miss Matthew, and since Julian Fellowes has made it clear that the character is not coming back as a ghost, Summer in February is as close as we're likely to get to a post-death sighting. The fact-based film about a romantic triangle is set among a group of artists in Cornwall in 1913 -- the very year of Downton, Season 1 -- and was made during the hiatus between shooting Seasons 2 and 3, so Stevens looks especially Matthew-ish right down to the blond curls and slightly chubby cheeks the actor no longer has.

And we might as well focus on that faux-Crawley appearance, because Summer in February (on VOD now and in theaters Jan. 17th) turns its rich, colorful possibilities -- sex, love, bohemian artists -- into a pallid, by-the-numbers disappointment. Dominic Cooper, always dynamic, plays Alfred Munnings, an artist from the working class. In real life AJ Munnings later became president of the Royal Academy of Art,  a realist admired for his paintings of horses. Here we see him as an ambitious, egotistical  young man, who dominates a party with a sudden recitation of Poe's 'The Raven.'

Stevens is his more traditional, upper-class best friend, Gilbert Evans, and Emily Browning plays Florence Carter-Wood, an artist who arrives and makes both their heads spin. Alfred moves faster, though, and is dramatic where Gilbert is shy. No surprise: Florence marries Alfred and breaks Gilbert's heart.

The film smartly avoids the cliche of the mad artist, only to replace it with the cliche of the mad wife. Florence gives her husband a bizarre test on their wedding day: his admired painting of her on horseback in her riding costume must be taken down from an exhibition because, she says, she doesn't want to be shared with the world. The marriage goes downhill from there, and as it did in real life, her emotional stability unravels almost at once.

In a better film this story might have made for trenchant observations about psychological distress, or at least a swoony romance against the wind-swept sea, Gilbert loyally standing by to try to help. Here we're simply puzzled by the characters' opacity, not to mention their lack of chemistry. We can see that Florence is beautiful, but we're meant to think it's more than her looks that drives the two men wild. And we never quite get a fix on just how disturbed she is meant to be.

That is partly Browning's fault; she poses for the camera more than she acts. It's partly due to Christopher Menaul's uninspired direction. And it's largely because of the flat screenplay by Jonathan Smith, based on his 1995 novel. Even Cooper's intense performance can't make up for that

The background of the film is its own story. Smith is a former middle-school teacher of Stevens,  and directed him in student plays. You can admire Stevens' loyalty in taking this on; he is also a producer. It's  too bad he doesn't have much to do on screen except seem lonely and sad.

Just as it did in Downton, the war soon arrives, and we see Gilbert in the uniform of a British soldier. Squint to block out the setting and you can imagine it's Matthew Crawley. Or maybe just re-watch Downton Seasons 1-3. 

This article is related to: Reviews, Dan Stevens, Summer in February, Dominic Cooper, Emily Browning, Downton Abbey, Christopher Menaul

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