Pawel Pawlikowski, winner of the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for Cold War, has become one of the world’s top contemporary auteurs almost by stealth. He’s not a filmmaker who courts controversy through his films’ subject matter or his own public image, and it would be hard to pin an absolute and distinctive directorial signature on him just yet. Arguably making Cold War another exercise in monochrome photography, as per his previous feature Ida (2013), might be the closest we come to an actual clue as to Pawlikowski’s stylistic proclivities and concerns. And perhaps that clue links back to Pawlikowski’s origins as a documentary filmmaker, where, although the material he selects is always superficially very different, he is always thinking his storytelling through in terms of the visual apparatus of his medium – the colours, the cinematography, the overall mood.
Never has Pawlikowski’s approximation of a specific mood been more apt than in his superb 2004 drama, My Summer of Love, perhaps still his finest film. What begins as a seemingly gentle, lulling micro-drama about the burgeoning love affair between two female teens in rural Derbyshire, gradually morphs into a work of fierce complexity and emotion, revealing the imprint of not only an arch visual filmmaker but a canny dramatist too. Particularly in its opening stages, Pawlikowski the documentarian seems right at home in setting up the all-important Peak District milieu, with the worlds of Emily Blunt’s middle class Tamsin and Natalie Press’ working class Mona being sketched in ahead of their seminal meeting. The seamless, naturalised editing (reflecting how lazy hours would pass on a hot summer’s day), combines with the shimmering natural light and Alison Goldfrapp’s dreamy score to create a superbly authentic tone of teens wiling away an endless summer.
Equally impressive about Pawlikowski’s approach to the material is through the casting. Coming two years before what most people would classify as her breakout film – The Devil Wears Prada (2006) – Emily Blunt is a world way away from that film’s necessity for caricature, in portraying here, with just the right level of deceptive ease, her middle class flirt and fantasist. Blunt’s foil in My Summer of Love is Natalie Press – both in role and overall aesthetic. Against Blunt’s sharp, alluring features and her cut-glass accent are Press’ soft, fair and fragile-looking skin, suggesting vulnerability, and a certain absence of guile conveyed brilliantly by Press’ utterly unaffected performative manner. Almost as fascinating as the dramaturgical spark between these two characters is watching how their sensibilities coalesce as well.
Into this dramatic cocktail, Pawlikowski (with a little help from the source material of Helen Cross, of course) intriguingly throws in arguably the most famous East Midlands thesp around – Paddy Considine. Against the seeming harmony of Tamsin and Mona’s growing friendship and attraction, Considine acts as the unnerving and combustible outlier. Considine is cleverly cast as Mona’s ex-con brother, Phil, recently released from prison but professing to have become a born-again Christian and possessed of a demented zeal to carry and erect a large wooden cross to the top of the peak that overlooks the bleak industrial village they all inhabit. Mining the same kind of controlled fervour that characterised his most iconic early roles – Morell in Shane Meadows’ A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) and Richard in the same director’s Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) – the inevitable way in which he becomes the agent for Mona and Tamsin’s relationship to reach tipping point is compelling.
For what Pawlikowski has ultimately crafted is an ingenious, fresh variant on the quintessentially British theme of class. It remains an unspoken ironic tension throughout the narrative: the clear class divide between Tamsin and Mona and how that is informing the relationship peak and troughs that develop between them. Pawlikowski’s elliptical dramatic style gains huge pay-off in the film’s gripping final act as vital truths about one of the characters – all of which has been withheld from the viewer – are revealed. This leads to one of the best endings of any British film – both from a visual and dramatic perspective – as a set-piece in a picturesque Peak District waterfall comes full circle and allows one of the girls to finally assert herself, gain the moral high ground, and break free from the historical shackles that have been blighting her. She marches indefatigably past the camera towards a more hopeful future; much like the vaulting confidence of Pawel Pawlikowski’s own career too.