It is the story of how Alfred Munnings, equestrian painter and drunken boor, wooed and married fellow artist Florence Carter-Wood. His success in this amorous adventure was achieved despite the fact that, according to the film at least, Carter-Wood and Munnings’ best friend Captain Gilbert Evans were clearly a much, much better match. Everyone in the film except for Carter-Wood and Munnings knows it and everyone watching the unfolding love-triangle knows it too. It comes as no surprise, therefore, when events play out the way they do.
Thematically there is not much new to ponder. Munnings is temperamental. Well he was an artist and we’ve been told many times that this is so often the way with ‘those kind of people’. Set in pre-war, stiff upper-lipped Britain of the early twentieth century there are class divisions that the artistic fraternity have tried to transcend for generations. Yet Munnings’ humble origins in Mendham in Suffolk [where there is still a pub named after him] play against him as he encounters the more aristocratic heritage and relations of his inamorata. And of course, being artistic, we are offered a group of people known as the Lamorna School whose morality, judged by the standards of the time, was suspect. The film does not baulk at showing both male and female full frontal nudity and there is plenty of good honest Anglo-Saxon swearing.
The problem with it all, though, is that the film tells a story of personal real life tragedy and by committing this to celluloid the creative team have managed to make it rather dull. Despite the beauty of the photography, and some of it is ravishing, the story is a rather pathetic one that demands privacy rather than exposure. In attempting to remain faithful to the real facts of the episode, director Christopher Menaul and screenplay writer Jonathan Smith have squeezed the drama out of it. The result plods beautifully but predictably across the screen.
Munnings was clearly not quite the nicest of chaps. It is well known that despite achieving respectability as president of the Royal Academy of Art in 1944 he never lost his rough edges. Indeed his valedictory speech was given in an evidently drunken stupor whereupon he lambasted the Impressionist movement for having corrupted art. In Dominic Cooper’s hands he is self-opinionated and self-loving. He demonstrates little affection for anyone else so it comes as a surprise when Emily Browning’s Florence Carter-Wood agrees to marry him. Neither actor dominates the screen and neither has the charisma to make up for the film’s deficiencies. He is dislikeable and she is rather wet. It is not, perhaps, their fault. The screenplay paints them into a corner from which they find it difficult to escape.
It is up to Dan Stevens in the role of Evans to rescue the film from this ill-matched and ill-starred pair of lovers. It is a quiet dignified performance that delivers what it needs to do without histrionics. A brief cameo from Nicholas Farrell as Carter-Wood père nearly steals the film whilst Hattie Morahan as Laura Knight, one of the Lamorna group, is charmingly believable.
And a little niggle to finish with. It is hard to achieve plausibly great art being painted by great artists on film. You can’t use the originals and the reproductions are always sub-standard. It stretches the suspension of disbelief to breaking point.