'Summer,' a Picture in Subtle Shades

Nathalie Press plays a vulnerable teenager who finds herself in a dizzying affair in Pawel Pawlikowski's
Nathalie Press plays a vulnerable teenager who finds herself in a dizzying affair in Pawel Pawlikowski's "My Summer of Love." (By Ryszard Lenczewski)

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 17, 2005

"My Summer of Love" is nuanced, exquisite and predictable. It goes exactly where you know it's going but when it gets there, you'll say, "Well, okay, it found a new route to an old place."

The place is wisdom, the route is through the regions of sex and pain and class and, oh yeah, the north of England. The participants are teenaged women.

Poor Mona (Nathalie Press). She's sprightly, freckly, full of life, and she's stuck in the middle of nowhere. Her small town nestles in the Yorkshire hills like a plastic city in an aquarium or a snow globe. One long day turns into another. Her only relative, her intense brother, Phil (brilliantly played by Paddy Considine), has gone God-bonkers by, among other things, pouring perfectly good hootch down the drain of his pub as he prepares himself for the chaster life of an evangelical minister. Who has time for Sis when Jesus is whispering in your ear?

One day Mona's puttering about on her motorbike through a beautiful countryside she doesn't even notice, when she crashes and doesn't burn. Or rather, doesn't realize that the burning -- of a different sort -- is just about to start. When she awakens, above her on horseback is a girl.

Tamsin (Emily Blunt) is everything Mona isn't: dark, mysterious, rather beautiful, with the dead Chloe Sevigny eyes of sensuality and worldliness. It soon develops that she's rich and fast and alone. Thus begins Mona and Tamsin's excellent, if doomed, adventure.

As I say, everyone knows where it's headed except poor Mona. The smarter, more beautiful, more sophisticated girl will seduce her, then abandon her and head back to her own kind. But you can't tell that to Mona, who at 16 knows everything, except how badly she can be hurt.

So the movie offers the dreadful fascination of a car wreck. It can't end well, that's a given. What isn't given is how full of life the director Pawel Pawlikowski fills it, and how keen is his visual sense. This is a handsome movie, made for what can't have been more than two pittances; it's still full of poetry and Pawlikowski has the gift of pushing his compositional gifts to express emotional resonances, yet at the same time not overdoing it in showy, film-schooly ways. I loved the house he uses as Tamsin's: It's huge and imposing, yet so clotted with vines it's almost invisible, and the vines somehow stand for a corruption that engulfs the aristocracy, crowding in, blotting out light, obscuring clarity, riotous, dangerous and uncontrollable. Then there comes a time when he foreshadows the coming of difficulties to the relationship with a quick shot of white water frothing about the rocks in a sylvan stream that has become a second home for the young lovers: rough passage approaching.

He's also a minimalist. Seeing Tamsin's father shielding himself from her behind an eternal copy of the London Times tells us all we need to know about him and their relationship, just as brother Phil's scene with the liquor bottles fixes him in a trice, regardless of your stand on the temperance issue. Yet it's not all symbolism: The two young women, in particular, are played at perfect, realistic pitch.

Press captures Mona's burgeoning sexuality, even if its actual content is ambiguous. Is she really gay? Or is it that Tamsin alone listens to her, talks to her, provokes her, cares about her? Is it that she merely wants to please this exotic creature? Press also captures the weird contradictions in a young woman who doesn't quite know who she is yet: one part innocent, one part too knowing, one part cynic, one part child, all parts vulnerable.

Then there's Tamsin herself, a kind of rich boho, self-dramatizing yet also remote. She loves to drape herself in dramatic clothes, like an Isadora Duncan, and she's a gifted cellist. She also swaddles Mona in the same ample gownage, symbolically overwhelming her. Is she gay? Or is this a role she's taken up because it amuses her and helps her pass the time? It also allows her to express her hostility at her philandering, indifferent father, even if we know, somehow, that her rebellion will ultimately prove feckless.

Then there's Considine. He jumped to prominence in "In America," and has just been vivid in "Cinderella Man," as big a mainstream movie as can be made. This much smaller role would seem to be not much of a step forward -- though, of course, this movie might have been filmed way before "Man." Whatever, he fulfills it exquisitely, shading Phil with tormented humanity. He loves his sister and cannot bring to her the stark fury he brings to his religious life, and in some ways -- even as he's got the brethren engaged in an aggressive cross-planting enterprise, as if to claim Yorkshire for the Lord -- she saves him from his own tendencies.

The movie ends unsurprisingly, proving that not all bad deeds must be punished. But it's a remarkable if brief entrance into real psychologies.

My Summer of Love (86 minutes, at Loews Cineplex Dupont Circle and Landmark's Bethesda Row) is rated R for sexuality, nudity and drug use.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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