Indeed, director Christopher Menaul and writer Jonathan Smith need us to feel such frustration and empathy toward their heroine, Florence, a fair lady of social pedigree, strangled by her own social constraints but screaming out to let rip her artistic flare. With the delicately featured, bud-lipped Emily Browning in the lead role, it’s a promising start. That said it’s one that gradually ebbs away at our initial affections for Florence, making her less like the usual fabled vulnerable heroine that cements such a triangle – and indeed such a tale, and more like the insolent hussy who deserves her lot.
Based on Smith’s acclaimed novel of the same name about a real-life group of carefree Cornish artists, the wild and bohemian Lamorna Group, aspiring artist Florence Carter-Wood (Browning) goes to visit her brother and learn more about her craft. However, she becomes not only a muse for the painters but also ‘the lady of the moment’ at the centre of a complex love triangle, involving the poetic and passionate anti-Modernist Alfred Munnings (Dominic Cooper) and his best friend, the land agent in charge of the Lamorna Valley estate, Gilbert Evans (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens).
Unsurprisingly, it’s Menaul’s locations that initially warms our hearts like a big mug of local brew, the dreamy idea of idyllic, creative living beside the Cornish coastline. The scene is set and Menaul’s charismatic fool, Munnings, is given his grand romantic entrance, stubbornly and lavishly played by Cooper who steals every scene he occupies. Since Cooper’s The Duchess days, there is very little to criticise here, and the actor delivers a fine, tormented performance with a big, plump underbelly of devilish darkness to his persona. Cooper aptly blends irresponsible rogue and wounded victim into one intriguing character whose misdemeanours can be blamed under the guise of ‘art’.
So far, TV romance-series veteran Menaul has the right blend of actor and location, further enhanced by Stevens who lives and breathes the ‘stiff upper-lipped’ type of gentleman since Downton, the silent, brooding type who must sacrifice his own needs for honour and duty. However, with comfy stereotypes in place to prop up the triangle, it’s actually a distinct lack of real passion needed to build proceedings into a tragic crescendo that lets the sides down. This is where the exquisitely written book gets lost on screen and also robs us of the fascinating insight into the minds of the Cornish art community. Although Smith is naturally sympathetic to the anguished situation, this group and their art merely act as a colourful backdrop to a very average but watchable love triangle in practice.
Browning effortlessly represents the fragile beauty of Florence, ironic considering her uninhibited Sleeping Beauty role, but altogether fitting as she swaps one susceptible female for another. However ballsy and forward-thinking Florence is for the time, the lack of inferred passion means the character’s actions are her ruination to the point that her demise has little emotive impact. We are subsequently left with no one to champion, as Evans merely provides the reality check and Munnings the resentment.
It’s an altogether hollow feeling that results in a love triangle story played out by numbers – albeit it very succinctly by Menual’s hand. Still, there’s always the Cornish sunset to swoon over, and Smith’s novel to read, perhaps, before watching as a prompt to fill in the emotional gaps?