Bored and pouty, Mona (Natalie Press) wants out. Cooped up in the small Yorkshire village where she’s lived all her life, she’s uneasy with her ex-con brother’s decision to close down the family pub in order to host bible meetings. Phil’s (Paddy Considine) declaration that he’s found religion in prison looks to Mona like yet another one of his cons, and more precisely, another bid to control her movements (their parents are dead). She rejects his new interest, suspicious of his motives and his means. But as she’s inexperienced, engaging, and only starting to comprehend her own sensuous powers, Mona is unsure quite how to resist.
And so 16-year-old Mona is making some discoveries of her own. She’s spending the early days of her summer vacation lolling about in a nearby meadow, smoking cigarettes and gazing up at the sky, dreaming of the escape she’ll make, once she’s old enough. Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love begins as she first sees what seems an urgent, thrilling, and utterly magical means, a literal knight on a horse. Appearing to hover over Mona during one of her lovely afternoon reveries, this savior looks down on her and asks if she’s all right. Stunned, Mona asserts that she’s only resting, not fainted or “crash[ed] or something.” And yet she is about to be crashed, when she squints to get a closer look at this dazzling rescuer. Her name is Tamsin (Emily Blunt).
As they walk together, Mona walking her broken motorbike and Tamsin her horse, they seem to share an immediate rapport; as sheep bleat and the sun lowers behind them, the girls enter into a relationship that seems to surprise them both. Elegant, well-read, and privileged, Tamsin invites Mona to stay in her palatial home while her parents are away. At first, Mona is excited just to be out from under Phil’s trompy feet. “I want the old Phil,” she cries to him, “He wanted to be real.” Soon, however, she’s also moved by the experimentation available with Tamsin — with regard to drugs, sensuality, and sex.
Their romance seems alternately fluid and jaunty, as they explore one another and their own feelings, partly a function of cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski’s nimble handheld camerawork, and partly of Pawlikowski’s affection for documentary (which he made before directing fiction films); his first fiction feature, 2001’s Last Resort, had a similarly rough and agile look and also worked thematic layers. Where that film astutely examined class, sex, and national identities in a global economy, by considering another offbeat romance, My Summer of Love pushes inward to break open fictions of romance in multiple forms — with individuals, with escape, with religion.
Mona’s yearning for an ideal object of affection has more to do with her needs and fantasies than with Tamsin per se, though Tamsin fills the space made available to her, to appear a fantasy and narrate her own life story to accommodate Mona’s yearning. Mona’s turn to Tamsin involves a typically and wildly romantic education (Tamsin introduces her to Piaf and Nietzsche, plays Saint-Saens on her cello), a bit of Ouija board mysticism, and some dire emotional bonding over Tamsin’s own sad past; her beautiful sister Sadie, she says, died a horrible anorexic death, turning “into this monster” in her final days, “throwing up all the time” and traumatizing the family. This specter of a frightening body only seems to enhance Tamsin’s own attractiveness, at least for Mona, increasingly smitten by her perfection, her passion and her generosity.
When Tamsin hears that Mona’s been dumped by the local married man with whom she’s been having joyless sex, she becomes Mona’s champion. “How’d he shag you?” she asks, titillated. “Let me show you,” Mona suggests, demonstrating maybe 30 seconds of mounting and moaning. “Men like that,” announces Tamsin, “ought to be castrated.” Though she devises a considerably less drastic “lesson” for Ricky (Dean Andrews), her gallant assumption of Mona’s cause secures their connection, at least in Mona’s Mona’s spirited mind. Accustomed to feeling used and inferior, she’s more than ready to embrace her redeemer.
As the film takes up Mona’s perspective, Tamsin remains oblique, even as she proclaims her fierce attachment: “We must never be parted,” she insists during an evening of mushrooms-taking and earnest lovemaking. “If you leave me I’ll kill you.” Mona is elated at such dedication, as Tamsin appears precisely the savior she envisioned. Of course, Phil sees Tamsin rather differently, as predatory, even sinister, as she fits his worldview as adroitly as she fits Mona’s; for Phil, she might embody or undo his latest project, building a giant cross out of scrap metal to erect on a nearby hilltop, in order to, as he puts it “bring love to this valley.”
Each member of this threesome is obsessive in his or her own way; when Phil literally locks Mona in her bedroom in an effort to “save” her, she begins drawing Tamsin’s portrait on her wall. This image — colored chalk on the roughhewn surface — showcases Tamsin’s eye as Mona perceives and needs it, a means to see herself reflected, her brother refracted, her desire embodied before she had even quite imagined it.