True story that became a hit film
ONE OF the most successful British films this year – Cornwall-based Summer In February – will find a new audience when it's released on DVD on Monday.
The film, perfect post-Downton viewing on a Sunday night, focuses on the bohemian Lamorna Group of artists, dominated by the charismatic AJ Munnings (Dominic Cooper).
The incendiary anti-Modernist Munnings, now regarded as one of Britain's most sought-after artists, is at the heart of a complex love triangle, involving aspiring young artist Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning) and Gilbert Evans (Dan Stevens), the land agent in charge of the Lamorna Estate.
The moving and tragic story is told against the backdrop of the stunning West Cornwall coastline, which threatens to upstage the actors with every wave.
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Jonathan Smith, who wrote the screenplay, based on his 1995 novel, told me: "The cast stayed in the hotel where some of the real-life drama happened – Emily Browning stayed in the bedroom which Florence and AJ had inhabited, which I think she found quite spooky.
"The hotel has changed a lot since then, but nonetheless it was the same venue and that sense of place really resonated with everyone.
"It was just 40 yards down the hill to the beach where many of them painted, so it was hard not to feel those characters around you."
Jonathan, who was head of English at Tonbridge School for 17 years, was inspired to write the book after being told about the love story by an art teacher.
"He told me, 'here's an incredible story that's right up your street'. I was completely hooked."
It turned out that Gilbert Evans' son David (who is interviewed as part of the DVD extras) lived only five miles from Jonathan.
"He told me he never knew who the woman was in the picture that had hung on the wall all his life.
"Of course, it was Florence, and he only realised when he found letters his father had written. That's an incredible story in itself."
Jonathan, who has regularly holidayed in Cornwall since visiting Gwithian Towans when he was 7, spent a great deal of time in the county between 1992 and 1994 researching the story and interviewing people who had known the Lamorna Group.
"When the book was published in 1995, everybody said it's got to be a film," added the 71-year-old writer. "Saying it is one thing – it's incredibly difficult getting a film off the ground in Britain; it's David and Goliath stuff.
"Getting the money and cast is great, but in these days of car chases and action movies, making a film like Summer In February is very hard."
Fortunately, audiences took the film to their hearts. The Curzon in Mayfair, for instance, only booked a week's screening but it eventually ran for five.
"We showed it in Penzance and Falmouth first, which was the right thing to do, but obviously you have to go wider than Cornwall. It does seem to have captured people's imagination – apparently, the Summer In February exhibition at Penlee House in Penzance attracted more people than any other exhibition held there previously."
Jonathan and the cast and crew are now awaiting America's reaction when the film is released there in 2014.
He said: "It certainly helps that Dan Stevens is now a massive star in the States. He actually gets screamed at in the street ...."
The former Downton Abbey star was a pupil of Jonathan's, as is Summer In February's producer Jeremy Cowdrey.
"I've known them both since they were little boys, but we are now great friends despite our ages. It was good to have a core of three of us, who knew each other very well, pitching the film at the beginning."
Jonathan added: "We all hope that Summer In February will have a new life on DVD. I think you're right – it's very much a Sunday night film."
Metrodome Distribution releases Summer In February on DVD on October 14. Extras include interviews with director Christopher Menaul and David Evans.