My Summer of Love (15)

The motor scooter diaries - or how summer came at last to British film
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The Independent Culture

If ever a film lived up to its title, My Summer of Love is it. Heat haze ripples off roofs, golden light shimmers through leafy canopies, grass glows boiled-sweet green in front of a big Victorian house. This is the English summer as we've rarely seen it since the folk-rock album covers of the late Sixties, or perhaps since certain Joseph Losey films from that period - which is to say it's not nearly as idyllic as it appears.

Based on Helen Cross's novel, this story of two teenage girls' love and rebellion seems an unlikely choice for Pawel Pawlikowski, the Polish-born director who established his reputation in TV documentary before making the fiction feature Last Resort, about asylum-seekers stranded by the British seaside. By comparison, My Summer of Love seems gentle, at times even prettified; but its sweetness is only a superficial lacquer on a troubling and impressive film.

Working-class teenager Mona (Natalie Press) lives above a Yorkshire pub with her brother Phil (Paddy Considine). Recently out of prison, Phil has found God and is pouring away all the house booze (and his and Mona's livelihood) to turn the pub into a "spiritual centre" for his beatifically chanting cronies. Mona has one unsatisfactory escape route - no-frills sex with an older man - but another possibility presents itself in the form of an apparition on horseback, first seen upside-down in a shimmer of light. That vision, straight out of D H Lawrence, is Tamsin (Emily Blunt), a jaded rich girl home for the summer, having apparently been expelled from school as a bad influence.

The two become inseparable friends, then lovers. Mona is hooked on Tamsin's louche glamour and her dropping of exotic names like Nietzsche and Edith Piaf. As for what draws Tamsin to Mona, the giveaway is when she declares, "I've never met anyone like you" - and you can well believe that she's never encountered anyone working-class before, sealed as she is in her pampered cultural bubble.

Together, the girls create their own bubble. When they take mushrooms and visit a ballroom, Pawlikowski cuts from their moped ride to the pair dancing, bathed in brilliant white light; it's only after a moment that we see the other people on the dancefloor, a crowd of waltzing OAPs. Shot by Ryszard Lenczewski, the film evokes the girls' fevered isolation, a collusive fantasy derived largely from the fantasy of European sophistication that Tamsin so tirelessly promotes. When they run away after ramming a garden gnome through a car window, it's to the sound of Piaf, the hand-held camera pelting before them in emulation of the riotous euphoria of Jules et Jim.

The balminess of the girls' world contrasts with everything outside, especially Phil's cheerless faith. The exterior of the pub is nearly always shot side-on, suggesting a dead white prison wall. Phil and his acolytes drag a massive crucifix up a hill, like Indians lugging a boat in a Werner Herzog film - a startling, surreal image of the dead weight of human folly.

There's a piquant verbal comedy to the girls' dialogues, with a mischief that's almost Alan Bennett-ish (the film is scripted by Pawlikowski with Michael Wynne). Putting down her cello bow, Tamsin announces, "That was The Swan, by Saint-Saëns." "I live above The Swan," replies Mona. Such exchanges show how much this is a film about class, as much as about female rebellion. While Mona's outlook is expanded by the romantic prospect that Tamsin offers, it's clear that the rich girl is also exploiting her, using her as a credulous audience, a fantasy sidekick. But the power balance is less clear-cut than it appears, for Mona is the one with the sexual knowledge, while we suspect that Tamsin is nowhere near as worldly as she acts.

Tamsin could have been a ludicrous monster, if not for the genuine grace and predatory charisma of Emily Blunt, who mixes dry, self-mocking humour with a startling resemblance to the Forties Italian star Alida Valli. Natalie Press's Mona comes across as sometimes exaggeratedly gamine-ish, but has a brittle, prosaic hardness and an acid, knowing sense of fun (and she does a mean Exorcist routine). Both newcomers more than hold their own against Considine, who characteristically blends gentle underplaying with strategic bursts of intensity. "How great is the Lord," Phil intones with a stunned monotone and a glazed smile, so precariously docile that it comes as no surprise when he later reverts in a flash to the anger we've heard about.

Pawlikowski tells the story with an elliptical subtlety that's quite out of step with most British cinema. Events often tail off without clear consequences, and the narrative shifts through a succession of moments and changing moods, in keeping with the girls' weirdly suspended existence, in which they seem barely aware of the callousness of some of their acts of rebellion.

Yet, despite its overall toughness, you sometimes wish the film would cut a little deeper, show a few harsher edges. In the stylistic sweetness, it seems as if Pawlikowski is at once pastiching a British tradition of screen ruralism and aiming at a sort of feminised film language: in some of the more impressionistic moments, you might at a pinch imagine the story being directed by Lynne Ramsay, although you suspect she would surely have been more confrontational.

Much as the film is stranger, smarter and more unsettling than most British productions, there's still a faint nagging sense of the conventional about it - too neat a fit with a certain strain of BBC-financed art film. At moments, you wonder whether Pawlikowski had something more abrasive in mind. In the opening scene, Mona, bathed in warm light and a Goldfrapp song, draws her beloved on her bedroom wall. The harsh scrape of biro on wood-chip wallpaper is the kind of throwaway touch that reminds you that this truly is a Pawlikowski film, despite appearances.