The early life and loves of classical painter AJ Munnings are rendered as likeable coastal melodrama.
In 1949 Alfred Munnings, then president of the Royal Academy of Art, gave his retirement speech at the academy’s annual dinner. Broadcast on national radio, he denounced the work of the modernists: “If you paint a tree,” he said, “for God’s sake make it look like a tree.” Winston Churchill, sat to his right, roared his approval. Munnings had become best known as a painter of horses, where a shift to depicting racing and hunting had brought him to the attention of the wealthy. During World War I, he served as the official war artist for the Canadian Cavalry and found himself not far from the front lines a few years later.
His work still enjoys that attention of the well-to-do, with his paintings regularly fetching millions, while his sketches – used as greetings cards and to settle the occasional bar bills – have drawn prices in the hundreds of thousands. This film, with its screenplay drawn from the novel of the same name by Jonathan Smith, touches upon moments of a life lived, focusing on the few short years that Munnings spent in Cornwall prior to the outbreak of war and where he met and married his first wife, Florence. The story of unrequited love may be a familiar one but the strength of its characters – among which are the cliffs and coves of the West Country – set the scene for an engaging melodrama.
Emily Browning stars as Florence Carter-Wood who arrives in a small Cornish village to join the adventures of the Lamorna Group. This colony of artists – part of the Newlyn School - specialise in working en plein air, painting out in the elements, in and around the picturesque coastal coves near Penzance. The group orbit around the supernova-sized ego of Dominic Cooper’s AJ Munnings, a poetry-citing vagabond who has enjoyed his wicked way with many of his muses. Florence is initially drawn to the more straight-laced Gilbert, Dan Stevens’ softly spoken land agent who stands in stable contrast to elaborate parties and string of torrid affairs that surround Munnings. Inevitably however, she falls for AJ. Not just falls for, either. Reader, she marries him.
With that, all three are sucked into an epic melodrama of kisses stolen on rain soaked, wind machined and shutter flapping rendezvous. Browning plays it well, initially torn between the excitement of the ever over-the-top AJ and doe eyed Gilbert’s thoughtfulness and care for her. The more she learns of Munnings’ character, the more her heart sinks and, as her love slips away, it isn’t long before she falls into the tweed-clad arms of Gilbert. Heartbreak ensues.
The power comes in understanding that the story is seeded in truth, with Smith’s screenplay drawn from Gilbert’s diaries that accounted the affair in some detail. Perhaps more importantly, despite the bottle of poison and on-the-nose setting of cobbled streets, tortured artists, drinking and cavorting, this kind of stuff will be familiar to anyone who has enjoyed a wild youth, and to stretch the paraphrasing of song lyrics a little further, have collected the names of the lovers went wrong.
This period in the Lamorna Group’s history offers a rich seam of characters and place.
The wind swept Cornish coast sings of dramatic romance.
Downton meets Du Maurier.