My Summer of Love

Dir. by Pawel Pawlikowski

Mona (Natalie Press), a working-class girl who runs the local pub with her brother, meets Tamsin (Emily Blunt), a wealthy trouble-maker who has returned home to the family estate after being expelled from boarding school. Bored and lonely, they find comfort in their relationship, though, as becomes increasingly obvious, that relationship is built from lies and games. In the final act, those lies unravel, and Mona, we are led to believe, finds new strength and independence from having survived the experience.

My Summer of Love received a lot of “buzz,” as they say, in Toronto, and I would guess that most of it was generated by Press’s performance, which is a lot of fun to watch. I can’t recall another character quite like Mona. She has the potential to become that loathsome stereotype, the “blue collar girl with a heart of gold who will teach the rich people how to really experience life,” but Mona is too world-weary and cynical to buy into such a lie. She’s learned to protect herself with sarcasm and irony, so when she does drop her guard, when she does allow some vulnerability, the betrayals by Tasmin and her brother wound all the more deeply.

During his Q&A, Pawlikowski said that he was drawn to this story because he is interested in characters who are seeking transcendence, whether through love or sex or religion. His response points to my great frustration with the film, which is that he seems to equate the three and is deeply suspicious of the real value to be found in any of them. As J. Robert Parks told me after the screening, it’s terribly annoying when a filmmaker expects us to find victory and personal triumph in a cliche.

I was also frustrated because My Summer of Love has the potential to offer an insightful portrait of a Christian struggling with the consequences of his new-found faith, but, again, the film instead reduces him to cliche. Mona’s brother Phil (Paddy Considine) has become an evangelical while in prison and has exercised his faith by closing the family pub and turning it into a meeting hall for Bible studies and prayer. I was especially touched by one scene in which Mona comes to Phil, needing comfort, needing to talk to the brother who is now her only family. He hugs her, rocks her in his arms, then begins to pray over her. It’s a moment I’ve experienced too many times in my own life — a Christian, acting with the very best intentions, falls back on old routines, praying for God’s help instead of looking that person in the eye, speaking directly to them, and doing something to meet their needs.

Considine was also there for the Q&A, and he mentioned how much he valued and respected the friendships he had made with evangelicals while researching the role, and it shows in his performance, which is quite good. But Pawlikowski’s script is bound too tightly to a banal narrative arc that demands Phil’s faith be superficial. He will inevitably be seduced by Tasmin, inevitably revert to his violent ways, inevitably forsake his Bible study friends. We get one final glimpse of him near the end of the film, his face in his hands, which, I suppose, is intended to suggest his “struggle” and the possibility of redemption, but it’s too little, too late. I quite liked the film for the first hour because the characters continually surprised me, which made the by-the-numbers finale all the more disappointing.