Written by: Michael Mackenzie on December 16th, 2006
Theatrical Release Date: UK, 2004
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Writers: Pawel Pawlikowski, in collaboration with Michael Wynne; based on the novel by Helen Cross
Cast: Natalie Press, Emily Blunt, Paddy Considine
DVD released: June 27th, 2005
Approximate running time: 83 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Sound: English Dolby Digital 2.0
DVD Release: Universal
Region Coding: Region 2 PAL UK
Retail Price: £19.99
The vast majority of movies which depict same-sex relationships might best be described as “Issue Films”: that is, films in which the various social issues that are relevant for homosexual couples take precedence over the characters themselves. In effect, the characters cease to be individuals and instead become instruments to be used by the director to make his or her own socio-political statement. I’m not trying to suggest that these issues are not important – on the contrary, they remain incredibly pertinent subjects despite the great strides made in the last decade towards acceptance of minorities, and many excellent films tackle them head-on. The danger, however, is that, by only ever portraying such relationships in Issue Films, those affected by these concerns run the risk of being dehumanised. The “problem”, it could be argued, gets more attention than the people that it affects.
What makes My Summer of Love so remarkable, therefore, is ironically how ordinary it is. It tells the story of a burgeoning romance between two teenage girls, and yet the issue of their gender is never even alluded to. They are simply two people who become caught up in a whirlwind romance, and the fact that it is a very well-made film doesn’t hurt either.
The plot focuses on Mona (Natalie Press), a moody sixteen year old sent to live in the country with her ex-con brother, Phil (Paddy Considine), who “found God” in prison and is now in the process of converting the family pub into a gathering-place for other Christians. Appalled by his bizarre behaviour, Mona retreats into her own little world, until one day, while roaming the countryside, she crosses paths with Tamsin (Emily Blunt), an elegant and alluring – not to mention very rich – girl of the same age, recently kicked out of her boarding school. The two girls hit it off immediately, becoming mutually dependent on each other to ward off the boredom of the summer. Friendship, however, gradually develops into something more, as the pair retreat ever further from the outside world.
As mentioned above, what makes the film, and indeed the relationship, work is writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski’s ambivalence towards labelling the girls as gay or even mentioning sexuality at all. What we have here, I think, is something considerably more fluid, and as a result it’s difficult to know the true intentions of either girl. Mona is clearly shown to be in a relationship with a man at the start of the film, and later on, Tamsin’s flirtation with Phil implies she can’t simply be defined as gay either. Complicating matters, though, is the issue of Tamsin’s continual lying. Towards the end, it is revealed that much of what she previously told Mona about her life and family – that her anorexic sister died, that her mother was off gallivanting around the world – was untrue. The impression given, in the final frames, is that their entire relationship was, for Tamsin, nothing more than a charade (or at least this is Mona’s reading of the situation). With Tamsin, though, it’s difficult to know for sure what is real and what is not, and Pawlikowski wisely shies away from portraying her as merely being a spoilt rich girl winding up an infatuated young lesbian for kicks.
A lot of what makes the film work as well as it does is the believability of the relationship. Pawlikowski doesn’t force things, resulting in a film that seems to drift by without any concern for pacing. This, combined with the idyllic Yorkshire setting and Ryszard Lenczewski’s warm lighting, results in a film that feels incredibly lazy without ever being boring. It really does feel as if time has stopped and that Mona and Tamsin are inhabiting their own idealised world. As a result, we get to see their relationship progress from friendship to love in an utterly convincing way, and the excellent performances of Natalie Press and Emily Blunt deserve to be praised too. Of the two, Blunt has the more showy part, and she delivers it with relish: Tamsin can be cold and distant, but also incredibly mesmerising, making Mona’s infatuation with her completely understandable. In her less guarded moments, however, we see her glacial mask slipping, revealing a needy young girl underneath. Press, who lacks Blunt’s haunting allure and is saddled with the less exotic of the two characters, has her work cut out, but she manages to be every bit her co-star’s equal, providing a fiery, raw performance.
No-one in the film actually says “This won’t last for ever”, but it’s clear from the outset that it won’t, and it’s here that the film falls into the trap of so many stories about same-sex relationships: it’s ultimately presented as doomed and unworkable. Pawlikowski wisely pulls back from the ending of Helen Cross’ original novel, in which Mona actually kills Tamsin (the often-cited Dead Lesbian Cliché in full force), but what remains is ultimately as downbeat as you can get short of actual murder being committed. In a sense, there’s really no other way for the plot to go – a film that spends its first two-thirds depicting a passionate romance in an idyllic setting is unlikely to end with things just continuing this way – but it’s rather predictable. Pawlikowski cleverly drops various hints as to Tamsin’s duplicity along the way (see, for example, a scene in which she convincingly lies to the wife of Mona’s ex that he got her pregnant), and, as I hinted above, the character is more complex than simply being a cold-hearted manipulator, but the ending is expected and clichéd all the same.
Other flaws are apparent in the film’s failure to explore the character of Phil in a satisfying way. Obviously, the main focus of the film is on Mona, Tamsin and their relationship, but Phil is, for the most part, sidelined to the extent that it’s difficult to really get an angle on him. Is his religious mania genuine, for example, or is he simply power-crazed? To an extent, this is probably intentional. After all, in Mona’s eyes he is no longer the brother she thought she knew, and we see him from a similar perspective. Paddy Considine’s performance holds it together, but the character is one element of the script that I wish could have been expanded. Likewise, there’s a lack of insight into what it is that makes Tamsin a pathological liar. Again, I suspect that this ambiguity is intentional: when the truth is laid bare, our reaction, much like that of Mona, is simply “Why?” Mona can’t believe she’s been strung along all summer, and because of the lack of insight given to the audience, it’s hard not for us to feel the same way, to some extent.
Problems aside, though, My Summer of Love is a great film. It’s incredibly skilled in its execution, both in terms of acting and technical qualities, and it manages to be mesmerising, moving and funny in equal measure. Its unpretentiousness is also commendable: this is not a film that attempts to make any sort of defining comment on teenage relationships, gay or straight. We need more films like this… and perhaps, one day, someone will write one that has a happy ending!
Presented anamorphically in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 (reasonably close to its theatrical ratio of 1.85:1), My Summer of Love comes across well, with the warm, rich colours being represented faithfully, as far as I can tell, while the slightly soft sheen of the print seems to be intentional. Marring the presentation are some compression artefacts on the background: the disc is dual-layer, but, with 5 of the available 9 gigabytes used, it’s fairly clear that space was not an issue, making these shortcomings less palatable than they would have been had the disc been packed.
The only available audio track is a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo affair, which is odd, given that the film is fairly recent and carries the Dolby Digital logo at the end (films carrying this logo always have 5.1 mixes – despite the confusion of the fact that a Dolby Digital track on a DVD can feature anything between one and seven channels). The American release, by Focus Features, contains a 5.1 track, and its absence here is disappointing. The 2.0 mix is not bad at all – in fact it’s rather good, with decent clarity and a reasonable depth to the score and ambient effects – but it’s certainly not what you would call enveloping. There are no subtitles.
Once again, the UK release disappoints in terms of extras. The US version includes a full-length audio commentary by Pawel Pawlikowski, but UK customers receive only the original theatrical trailer and a series of interviews with Pawlikowski and the three stars. As interviews go, they’re not bad at all, and reveal some interesting snippets of information, such as Natalie Press’ insights into what she feels makes Mona tick (not to mention hearing her speak with her real accent), and Emily Blunt’s similar comments on Tamsin, but they are on the whole too short. It’s hard not to feel short-changed, though, knowing that a more generous edition is available elsewhere (the US counterpart does, however, lack the trailer and interviews, so some may consider the lack of a commentary to be a reasonable trade-off).
Universal have not exactly rolled out the red carpet for My Summer of Love, which would be forgivable were it not for the fact that more materials than are on offer here clearly existed. As a UK film by a UK-based director, the lack of a commentary on this release when one exists for the US version is surprising and also rather unfair, while the absence of a 5.1 track makes this package feel like a rather second-rate effort.
This review originally appeared at Whiggles.com and is reprinted here with permission.