Neil Young’s Film Lounge – My Summer of Love
MY SUMMER OF LOVE
UK 2004 : Pawel PAWLIKOWSKI : 86 mins
I yield to no-one in my admiration for writer-director Pawlikowski’s Last Resort (2000), one of the very few truly outstanding British films from the last decade. So my expectations were very high for his followup third feature My Summer of Love, boosted by strong advance word before its Edinburgh Film Festival world premiere. Word was that Pawlikowski already had one hand on the prestigious Michael Powell Prize for best British feature. And word, in this case, proved a prescient judge: My Summer of Love duly won the prize, on the back of what seemed to be uniformly positive reviews in the Scottish press.
There’s obviously much to like in this very small-scale tale of teenage lesbian romance, unfolding over the course of one hot, hazy summer in an unspecified (west?) Yorkshire valley. The performances by Nathalie Press – as working-class Lisa, aka “Mona” – and Emily Blunt – as the posher, more affluent Tamsin – are sensitive and accurate, while Last Resort‘s Paddy Considine makes his usual strong impression as Lisa’s born-again-Christian brother Phil. Ryszard Lenczewski’s cinematography is suitably dreamy, backed up by evocative music from Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory. All in all a promising package, full of talented contributions, and one that’s clearly pleased both critics and audiences.
But I just didn’t buy it. Most obviously, Press and Blunt look much older than their schoolgirl characters’ sixteen years – perhaps a ploy to avoid possible accusations of presenting an inappropriately ‘underage’ relationship. There are, of course, plenty of 16-year-old girls who, like this pair, could easily pass for 10 years older. And perhaps if the rest of the story rang true, this aspect wouldn’t even register. Trouble is, there’s very little in My Summer of Love that doesn’t seem slightly but distractingly false.
Before seeing the film I’d been aware that it was based on a novel – and as the story took shape I got the distinct impression that the source material had been written decades ago. It turns out that Helen Cross’s book was published as recently as 2001, but is set during the mid-80s Miners’ Strike. This perhaps explains the lack of mobile phones or references to the internet in a screenplay (co-written with Michael Wynne) about teenage girls. Cross’s novel is apparently very different from this film (which is as it should be) – Pawlikowski jettisoned a serial-killer subplot, and the character of Phil is entirely their invention.
But while Phil’s evangelical actions might have fit in with the original 1980s timeframe, they sit awkwardly in a 2003 setting: this area of Yorkshire would almost certainly be much more multicultural than the all-white enclave of Pawlikowski’s film, and given current socio-political considerations the erection of a huge, seemingly permanent cross on a hillside would be at best ignorant, at worst crassly provocative. And what are we to make of Phil’s stated intention to “claim this valley back.” From what? From whom?
The film’s supporters would no doubt counter that such a literal approach to what has been described as a “fairy tale love story”. But even if taken on such hermetic terms, the central relationship always feels like more of a writer’s schematic conception than a convincing, organic development. Hippyish Tamsin in particular comes across like something from the early seventies, asking Lisa “Have you read Nietzsche” and proclaiming “God’s dead.” Despite the best efforts of Blunt and Press (and, indeed, Considine), the dialogue they speak and the situations in which they find themselves ring just a bit second-hand, a bit phoney-baloney: even the naming of Mona, she being a ‘moaner’ whose real name is Lisa (‘Mona Lisa’), smacks of cute, implausible contrivance.
The plot’s final twist is notably unsatisfying, shitting as it does on the film’s one sympathetic character – after a moment of cheap melodrama the picture then dribbles quickly away, the numerous positive aspects fading in the memory until only the nagging objections remain. In retrospect, the blandly generic title fits the material all too well – competently if over-conventionally handled by Pawlikowski, My Summer of Love feels like a predictable confection most suitable for teenage girls, but lacking the resonance, depth, originality and, most important of all, the believability that would make it cross over to general audiences. The Michael Powell judges clearly disagreed – but to award this film such a prize in a field that also included Dead Man’s Shoes and Process was, to this viewer at least, a nonsense.
13th September, 2004
(seen 25th August : Cameo Edinburgh : press show – Edinburgh Film Festival)
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by Neil Young