Noticeably straining to dramatize an obscure historical love story, Christopher Menaul’s Summer in February charts the romance between Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning) and her two suitors, the painter Alfred “A.J.” Munnings (Dominic Cooper) and Gilbert Evans (Dan Stevens), amid the artistic and bohemian scene of 1913 Cornwall. As sumptuous as it is immensely shallow, the film practically revels in its attention to lush English landscapes as a means to distract from its derivative storytelling. Studiously framing the gorgeous scenery and sometimes punctuating scenes with ostentatious camera flourishes (such as a wholly misapplied Vertigo-ish dolly zoom effect), Menaul allows the story to run on autopilot as the by-the-numbers proceedings offer nothing in the way of psychological nuance. The film unsubtly asserts that intense melodramatics—or, in the case of Florence, a prolonged series of glances—will articulate characters’ rote sentiments enough to be taken as complex.
Supposedly capturing the freewheeling bohemian lifestyle of the artists, what with stressing their propensity toward free love and frankness of speech, the film’s depiction of gender roles eventually becomes sorely traditional. Florence arrives in Cornwall with hopes of becoming a painter herself, surrounded by individuals who go against her conventional upbringing and embrace such aspirations, including the successful artist Laura Knight (Hattie Morahan), who becomes influential during Florence’s stay. But the film gradually and quietly diminishes Florence’s ambitions, if only so her function is to service the story’s routine romantic triangle; Florence’s complexity is thus greatly minimized, and she becomes posited as merely an artistic or personal muse to more carefully defined male characters. Her presence in Gilbert’s life is mostly at the expense of his transformation from a reserved to chivalric person. Seemingly oblivious to the world that had been established when the romance reaches its boiling point, the film provides a last-minute implication that Florence’s life was quite literally dependent on men: that, because of a pretty face, becoming an artist was less important—or, perhaps, less interesting—than being the tragic object of affection to discontented suitors.