My Summer of Love (2005): Pawlikowski’s Tale of Female Friendship, Starring Emily Blunt

Disregard the bland title, My Summer of Love is a fresh, unsettling, and even incendiary variant of the coming-of-age genre, focusing on a lesbian relationship between a working-class tomboy and a rich educated woman who against all odds develop strong friendship.

Based on the Novel by Helen Cross, the script was co-written by director Pawel Pawlikowski and Michael Wynne. “My Summer of Love” won the top prize at the Edinburgh Festival and seduced audiences at Toronto, before winning the 2004 BAFTA Award. The film is now shown in select arthouses by Focus Features. What could have been a predictable yarn about a first–and lesbian at that–romance, turns out to be original due to Pawlikowski’s experimental approach and sensitive direction and the charismatic performances of Natalie Press and Emily Blunt in the lead roles.

The story concerns two young, extremely lonely, women. Tomboyish Mona (Natalie Press) has no privileges, a thick Yorkshire accent, and a restless desire. She’s been burdened with a brother, Phil, (Paddy Considine) who’s driven toward God, a born-again Christian after a spell in prison. He expresses his feelings for his sister with prays rather than his presence, which drives her further from him since she feels his love for God is stronger than that for his family.

The other girl, Tamsin (Emily Blunt) is well off, incisive, witty and beautiful, with a mean, temperamental streak that translates into seeking vengeance for wrongs, and occasionally tripping out on magic mushrooms. The girls meet, when Mona rides her old bike, bought for from gypsies, and Tamsin is riding on an elegant horse. In spite of their different backgrounds, they begin spending time together and become close friends.

When their relationship becomes sexual, their families try to drive them apart in a manner that recalls Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures,” though not with the same dramatically harrowing results. “Whereas “Heavenly Creatures” was a story of desire, madness, and rebellion, “My Summer of Love” is, for the most part, a quieter, more restrained story, even though, it, too involves deceit, lies, and manipulation.

The seemingly straightforward tale is given zest by the depiction of a romance that is intriguing and intoxicating. Pawlikowski draws a tale of obsession and deception, and the struggle for love and faith in a world where both are impossible. The passionate, droll, and mysterious drama benefits immensely from striking performances of the two lead actresses, both movie newcomers.

The film vibrantly charts the emotional and physical hothouse effects that bloom one summer. Behind a spiky exterior, Mona hides an untapped intelligence and a yearning for something beyond the emptiness of her daily life. In contrast, Tamsin is well educated, spoiled, and cynical. As complete opposites, each is wary of the other’s differences when they first meet, but this coolness soon melts into mutual fascination and attraction. Adding further volatility is Mona’s older brother Phil, who has renounced his criminal past for religious fervor, which he tries to impose upon his sister. Mona, however, is experiencing her own rapture. “We must never be parted,” Tamsin intones to Mona. But can Mona completely trust her

The two heroines couldn’t be more different, but it’s their differences that fascinate them and draw them to each other. Each projects things onto the other, and each deceives the other. A seemingly usual coming-of-age tale thus becomes a more surprising tale, by turns funny and unsettling.

Pawlikowski is less interested in a straightforward adaptation than in using the book as a springboard for a more personal film, loosely based on the novel. The resulting script blends characters from the novel with elements of his own biography, forming a more radical narrative.

The quest for the two leads took eight months, with thousands of young women seen at schools, drama groups, and open calls. For the film’s third key role, Phil, a character invented from scratch, Pawlikowksi extended his successful collaboration with “Last Resort” star, Paddy Considine.

Pawlikowski’s European sensibility leads to a different look at England. And though working with British subjects and landscapes, he is more interested in the essence of things, rather than the usual obsession with class. His approach mixes lyricism, humour, mystery, and eroticism, which set him apart from most British filmmaking, particularly the social realist tradition.

Mona doesn’t have a mother, and in effect, doesn’t have a brother either. She feels that Phil’s relationship with Jesus is far more important than his relationship with her. She finds solace and excitement in her relationship with this mysterious, fascinating girl, who comes from a completely different world, one of privilege and education. Their relationship is based on complementary needs: Mona needs a friend, and Tamsin needs somebody to understand her, someone to bounce off of.

Underneath, Tamsin is a lost soul. When the two are together, it’s a bit of a lethal combination, since they spark each other’s deepest desires. Tamsin is blessed with a fertile imagination; she’s a total fantasist. Although shed like to play out all the outrageous and dangerous things that are in her mind, she’s a bit of a coward, and wouldn’t quite be able to follow them through without Mona. She likes what Mona brings out in her. Mona becomes everything for her. But Tamsin is not always completely truthful with Mona. There’s a certain danger and edge about Mona that Tamsin doesn’t have. Yet, because Mona is besotted, Tamsin can manipulate her. It’s the heart versus the mind situation: Mona throws herself into the relationship with her heart, while Tamsin throws herself into it with her head.

The big changes that happen in Phil’s life are at the expense of his little sister, who is still in pain and confused, trying to find her place in the world. Totally on his own track, Phil decides that Christ had actually told him to cleanse his pub, The Swan, and turn it into a spiritual center for people to come and learn about Christianity. No wonder Phil and Tamsin are at odds over Mona. Tamsin sees Phil as the man he was before, which means he’s a challenge to reckon with.

Shooting the story chronologically has allowed for a continuously evolving story, inhabited by characters with a room to breathe. Pawlikowski used his own controlled form of improvisation and experimentation, constantly trying things out on his cast, opening them up so that he can excise their false notes and get at something deeper and more original.

One sequence is particularly important, the one where the girls dance to Edith Piaf’s La Foule,’ and Tamsin realizes that she can take Mona wherever she wants to, emotionally. Tamsin loves the idea of being totally in control, and she wants Mona to be in awe of her. This fantastic sequence is enhanced by Piaf’s powerful song. It’s the first physical contact the women have, and it’s both tender and exciting.

Pawlikowlsi has trimmed off the edges of the novel, grinding it down into its essential form. With a 37-page shooting document, rather than a conventional screenplay, the production shot for five weeks on location in West Yorkshire. People offered the Pawlikowski more money to shoot in another part of the country, but he wouldn’t budge. Having scouted specific locations (on the outskirts of Todmorden) for months, he insisted on using them.

The visual style is dreamlike, with a laid-back colour scheme, and eroticised camerawork that offsets the beautiful physical landscape with the women’s sizzling emotional and erotic passion.

Named one of Variety’s “Ten Directors to Watch” in 2003, Pawlikowski is a major talent to watch. His last feature as writer-director, “Last Resort,” won the BAFTA’s Carl Foreman Award for Most Promising Newcomer. That film also earned the top prize at the Edinburgh Festival, as did My “Summer of Love,” four years later. Prior to “Last Resort,” which also screened at Venice and Toronto, he directed such acclaimed short films as Twockers and The Grave Case of Charlie Chaplin (a.k.a. Charlie Chaplin and the Cossack Gold); and wrote and directed the feature “The Stringer,” which screened at Cannes. Previously, he has also made the documentaries “Vaclav Havel,” “From Moscow to Pietushki,” “Serbian Epics,” and “Dostoevsky’s Travels.”