My Summer of Love (United Kingdom, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

My Summer of Love reserves the irony of its title for viewers who see the entire film. Yes, this is about the events of a summer, but it's up to the individual to decide whether what we're seeing on screen is love, a crush, co-dependency, or something altogether different. To a certain extent, this is a coming-of-age story. It's about a girl encountering a lot of things one would not normally expect her to experience in the kind of dead-end rut of existence she has fallen into. This summer unlocks impulses buried deep within her, some of which she acts upon and some of which she avoids - if only barely.

The story unfolds in and around a small Yorkshire town, which is home to 16-year old Mona (Natalie Press) and her older brother, Phil (Paddy Considine). Phil is an ex-con, who, upon his release from prison, reveals himself to be a changed man, having given himself to Jesus while inside. Now, as he's busy transforming the pub he and his sister inherited from their dead mother into a prayer center, Mona wonders where her beloved brother has gone. Bored with the monotony of her life, she takes her motor-less moped on short excursions. While on one of these, she meets Tamsin (Emily Blunt), a sophisticated beauty of her age who is home from boarding school for the summer. Although Mona is working class and Tamsin comes from money (she lives almost by herself in an ancient mansion overgrown by ivy), that doesn't stop a friendship from developing. In fact, it's almost inevitable, since these are apparently the only two teenagers in the town.

Tamsin, despite initially appearing self-confident, is haunted by ghosts. Her older sister, Sadie, died of anorexia. Her father and mother are absentee parents, with Mom on the road and Dad spending many of his waking (and sleeping) hours with his mistress. As Tamsin and Mona grow closer, it's clear that there's something almost unnatural about their pairing. They quickly transcend the usual bounds of friendship to enter into a sexual relationship, pledging undying love for one another. But there's a desperation about their words and actions, and, while Mona is straightforward in all of her dealings with her friend, Tamsin proves to be an able dissembler.

Over the course of the summer, Mona and Tamsin create their own reality, and one or both of them becomes defensive whenever something threatens to interrupt it. There are shades of Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures here, as well as echoes of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers. Religion and spirituality play a role, from Phil's goal of building a giant cross to "reclaim" the valley for Christ to Mona and Tamsin's use of a ouija board to summon Sadie's spirit. Additionally, although Mona views all things about religion as being fake, Tamsin seems almost open to some of what Phil has to say - or is it that she's just interested in Phil?

Pawel Pawlikowski, adapting from a novel by Helen Cross, creates vivid, complex characters and establishes them within an evocative setting. The movie shows respect for its protagonists and the intricacies of their interactions. We watch the subtle changes in the balance of power in these relationships with fascination, only to eventually realize (as the movie draws to its conclusion) that we may have misjudged things. My Summer of Love doesn't set out to trick us, but we may nevertheless be unprepared for some of its revelations. This isn't a thriller per se - it's a character piece - but it treads through adjacent territory.

The best-known actor in My Summer of Love is Paddy Considine, whose roles in In America and Cinderella Man have given him enough exposure to make him a familiar face. Here, he's more of a catalyst than a participant, but he does a solid job in a supporting role. He is, however, entirely eclipsed by his younger co-stars. Both Natalie Press and Emily Blunt (neither of whom is likely to be familiar to American viewers) are superlative. They nail their cinematic alter-egos effortlessly, using verbal and non-verbal cues to tap into their emotions. They understand their characters and use their talents to bring them to life.

My Summer of Love is one of those promising little gems that comes along and gets lost in the hype generated by Hollywood's flood of blockbusters. With its focus on character and atmosphere, Pawlikowski's feature represents 90 minutes well spent for anyone who cares about such basic narrative building-blocks. Mona and Tamsin are worth the time we invest in them - and more.

My Summer of Love (United Kingdom, 2004)

Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2005-06-17
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Profanity, Nudity, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1