Wednesday, July 30, 2014

My Summer of Love

I haven’t read the novel by Helen Cross that it’s based on, but I recall a press quote that featured prominently on the cover when Pawel Pawlikowski’s film adaptation herded it back onto the bookshelves: “a hand grenade of a novel”.

Pawlikowski’s film is more like an unexploded incendiary device buried deep in the Yorkshire countryside. Or like two volatile chemicals sloshing towards each other across the quiet streets of a small town. One of these chemicals is called Mona (Natalie Press), the other Tamsin (Emily Blunt).

Let’s pause for a second to shoot the elephant in the room. Yes, this was the film that launched Emily Blunt towards her Hollywood career. Yes, I’m a huge fan of Emily Blunt. No, I can’t account for why the fuck Blunt got the stellar career instead of Press. And I certainly can’t account for why Blunt’s choices and performances since ‘My Summer of Love’ have invariably tiptoed on the side of what’s safe and anodyne when she’s so gloriously and effervescently full of promise here.

Although, in retrospect, Blunt gets the easier role: sure, it’s more showy, but her portrayal of Tamsin requires less in the way of audience engagement. Throughout, she’s either a foil to Mona, or she spurs Mona on. Either way, it’s Natalie Press who carries the film and contains all of its emotionalism and she’s quite simply magnificent.

Mona is an almost archetypal working class girl, unemployed and living above the pub her brother, Phil (Paddy Consodine), once ran but has now turned into a Bible studies centre. Her affair with a married man has run its course, the flabby oik in question unwilling to walk out on his wife. She spends her days coasting along the high roads above her village on a motorbike that doesn’t have an engine.

It’s a life that has stultified – her sense of dislocation is exacerbated by the sense that she’s lost Phil, the volatile but full-of-life sibling she used to idolise, to born-again Christianity – but a single random encounter with the elegant, enigmatic and oh-so-fashionably bored Tamsin is all it takes to up-end the apple cart of her existence and explode her horizons beyond anything she thought possible.

Although self-evidently different in terms of class, intellectualism and general outlooks on life, Mona and Tamsin strike an immediate bond. Similarities appear: Tamsin opines the loss of a sister, Mona feels her brother has become a different, alien, person. Mona reacts to Tamsin’s father’s marital infidelity by vandalising the lovingly polished Jaguar that’s evidently his pride and joy, while Tamsin leads the charge in taking revenge on Mona’s ex-lover. Tamsin doesn’t look down on Mona’s vernacular speech and hardscrabble life; Mona doesn’t rail from Tamsin’s love of the classical music and erudite literature. The first half of the life is a sugar rush of visual and narrative enjoyment as an unconventional friendship gradually shades towards romance.

But a darker edge is always just on the periphery of things. Tamsin’s relentless fixation on tragedy sounds a warning bell. Phil’s veneer of love and godliness strains under reminders of the brawling bad boy he used to be – the one, let’s not forget, who Mona would prefer to have back. Meanwhile, Mona herself careens through the film, a deliriously excited woman-child one moment, a fizzing concoction of rebellious self-assertion the next. Throw into the mix Tamsin’s almost malevolent urge to expose Phil as a hypocrite and anything could happen.

Pawlikowski’s direction intuitively keys in to his characters’ psychology. The film has hazy, slightly wonky look about it that is both visually beautiful and disorientating. Rural Yorkshire looks more like a fever dream or a fantastist’s mindscape than the “grim oop north” backdrop that most British films would make of it. A ballroom dancing scene where sedately waltzing couples in the twilight of their years are interrupted and rendered aghast by Mona and Tamsin’s same-sex tango across the dance floor and up to the pathetically small stage which they then attempt to invade is a perfect example of Pawlikowski deconstructing social realism in the service of an impressionistic immersion in the all-too-brief emotional sugar rush that his heroines are experiencing.

Other scenes, though, could have come straight from the cinema of Loach or Meadows, not least in the denuded interior of the pub Phil runs into the ground in order to recreate as the unlikeliest temple in British cinema. Our first glimpse of Phil has him pouring away the contents of various bottles of spirits. Mona’s immediate reaction is to liberate a bottle of beer and question his sanity. One can empathise.

Tamsin instantly intuits that Phil is inhabiting a false persona – not wishing to give anything away, but the old saw of “it takes one to know one” applies – and takes it upon herself to reveal him as a fraud and a hypocrite. Of course, the likes of Phil will always lash out at life, Bible study or Bible study, and Consodine’s slow-burn performance gradually peels away the surface until the Phil of old is revealed. But, damn, Consodine’s a good actor when he’s got the right director to reign him in and keep him focused. His turn in ‘My Summer of Love’ shows up much of his CV as a retinue of easy/lazy choices.

The respective Mona-Phil and Phil-Tamsin payoffs make for electric viewing, but it’s the revelations about Tamsin that supercharge the drama of the final act, and Press comes into her own as the sweeping love to which Mona’s committed herself heart and soul breaks apart like a flooded dam. The film might be called ‘My Summer of Love’, but suggestion of an autumn of something else entirely gives the part-fiery/part-melancholy denouement its distilled power.

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