Sometimes a film adaptation bears little or no resemblance to the book it is based on. If you’re lucky it doesn’t matter, because what is created is a new work of art that has a separate life from the original. Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts is a good example: there is scant similarity to Jane Rule’s novel, but the film is a classic of lesbian cinema. Pawel Pawlikowski’s loose adaptation of Helen Cross’s My Summer of Love looks set to follow in its footsteps, taking the essence of the story and making something other but equally good with it.
Just released in theaters in the U.K., My Summer of Love promises to be haunting and lyrical from the opening bars of Alison Goldfrapp‘s soundtrack, all the time hinting at a disturbing undertone.
Mona (Natalie Press) is a working class Yorkshire girl who lives with her brother Phil (Paddy Considine) in what was a pub but has been turned into a Christian center by Phil, who found the Lord in prison. Up on the Yorkshire moors to escape the evangelists who have overrun her home, Mona meets Tamsin (Emily Blunt). Tamsin is languishing in a massive ivy clad house, suspended from boarding school for being “a bad influence on people.”
Mona is captivated by this beautiful and sophisticated girl (she quotes Nietzsche, she plays the cello, she “adores” Edith Piaf), and their relationship quickly develops from casual acquaintance, to sexual attraction, to obsessive love, played out over a long hot summer when they have nothing to do and a lot of time to do it in.
The camera loves Mona and Tamsin almost as much as they love each other, lingering longingly over the freckles that spatter the bridge of Press’s nose, gazing into Blunt’s huge blue eyes. The scenes involving the young women have a crystalline, hallucinatory feel: the first time we see Tamsin, we see her through Mona’s eyes, an upside-down image of a girl on a horse against a dazzling sky. This contrasts vividly with the almost documentary style used throughout the rest of the film: shaky, handheld camera work, blurred and out-of-focus shots of the evangelists holding meetings in the pub.
Pawlikowski’s technique of improvised rehearsals allows for a strong rapport to build up between the actors—the atmosphere between Mona and Tamsin crackles like summer lightning, elemental but dangerous. And the relationship between Phil, who wants his sister to find an unquestioning happiness in Jesus, and Mona, who wants her old brother back even if he was a violent criminal, is almost palpably painful.
Watching My Summer of Love, it’s difficult to shake off the persistent feeling that everything is going to end in tears, if not worse. This might be because of the similarities it shares with Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures; Tamsin is very like Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet), who both appear sophisticated and brittle but are in fact emotionally vulnerable fantasists.
Mona is drawn to Tamsin because she is dissatisfied with her own life and Tamsin’s life is so different from her own, much as Creatures’ Pauline Rieper (Melanie Lynskey) wants to escape her drab home life. In both films, the love between the two girls quickly turns obsessive, leading to violence when others try to keep them apart.
But My Summer of Love is a stunning, superbly acted film worth watching even with the inevitably sad ending. Natalie Press and Emma Blunt are totally believable as two young women looking to fill the gaps in their lives with excitement, and watching them fall for each other is enough to bring a smile to the face of even the most jaded.