• A Summer Story



    Released by: Scorpion Releasing
    Released on: August 12, 2014
    Director: Piers Haggard
    Cast: James Wilby, Imogen Stubbs, Susannah York, Jerome Flynn, Sophie Ward
    Year: 1988
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    The Movie:

    Ashton, a young lawyer from London, is hiking with his friend Jim through the Devon countryside when he slips and sprains his ankle. In need of help, the two men appeal to the first person they see, a beautiful young girl in simple clothes, carrying a sheaf of wheat. She takes the men to her home, a farmhouse presided over by her aunt, Mrs. Narracombe. Unable to make another long hike, Ashton is forced to rent a room there while he recuperates. While taking in the sights, doing some light reading, and engaging in fireside chats with Megan, Ashton becomes smitten with the girl, so much so that he throws himself into her lifestyle, attending sheep-shearing festivals and helping out around the farm. In due time, they consummate their relationship, after which Ashton determines to marry the girl. Upon his return to London, however, he becomes smitten with another girl. When he returns years later to the little farmhouse in Devon, he finds that in his absence things have changed dramatically.

    After the major commercial and critical success of Merchant Ivory’s Room with a View (it was nominated for eight Academy Awards), other British studios jumped into the fray, hoping to repeat that film’s success. ITC was one such company, hiring Penelope Mortimer to adapt John Galsworthy’s short story “The Apple Tree” into a feature-length, stuffed-shirt melodrama. But while Room with a View was a romantic comedy based on a classic novel by E.M. Forster, A Summer Story is mostly straight romance with little but the most predictable of intrigues (will he/won’t he?) to engage viewers. Mortimer isn’t content to simply ape what Gore Vidal called “the ruthless good taste” of Merchant Ivory; she also draws upon Roman Polanski’s far superior Tess for inspiration in a tale about a country girl wronged by the upper class man with whom she’s fallen in love.

    Selected to direct the film was Piers Haggard, fresh from his 1978 success with the BBC serial Pennies from Heaven. Best known to Rock! Shock! Pop! readers as the director of cult horror favorites The Blood on Satan’s Claw and Venom, Haggard, who was a distant relative of famed novelist H. Rider Haggard, lends the film the touch of class it deserves, but despite beautiful camerawork from veteran Kenneth MacMillan (Henry V, Of Mice and Men, and Circle of Friends), he cannot overcome Mortimer’s ho-hum script, which panders to the lowest common art-house denominator: talky domestication.

    In an attempt to replicate the film’s Merchant Ivory-like ambience, James Wilby was hired to star as Ashton. The previous year, Wilby had played the lead in Merchant Ivory’s Maurice, another Forster adaptation, this one about the perils faced by homosexuals in the Edwardian Era. (He later played an important role in the duo’s award-winning adaptation of Forster’s Howard’s End.) He’s certainly up to the task, bringing charm and an appropriate sense of naïveté to the role of an upper-middle-class city boy not quite prepared for a romance with a lower-class country girl. There are times, however, when he displays an uncomfortable rigidity, particularly in later scenes when emotion is called for but undelivered. Imogene Stubbs as Megan, on the other hand, deftly underplays her part, while Susannah York is perfect as Mrs. Narracombe, a hard-as-nails farm wife intent on marrying her course and ill-mannered son to the hard-working girl.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    A Summer Story is one of a slew of titles released by Scorpion as part a multi-year/multi-film deal with distributor Kino. It is presented in standard definition 480p, with an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer that has seen better days. Colors are a little drabber than they ought to be, and detail is hampered by the less-than-stellar transfer. It doesn’t look terrible; it just doesn’t look good, making the film appear older than it actually is.

    The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. The film is a quiet one. The actors are rarely required to raise their voices, the score is practically nonexistent, and there are few sound effects. The DD 2.0 mix has little to work with, but it does a fine job by it regardless.

    There are no extras related to the film itself. The DVD does feature a number of trailers for other films held by Scorpion, including Quest for Love, Wombling Free, Blood Feud, The Dirt Bike Kid, Say Hello to Yesterday, and Fools.

    The Final Word:

    A Summer Story isn’t a bad film, per se. In some respects, it’s actually quite good. The problem is that it contains an unwarranted degree of gravitas. A heavy-handed, dour approach lacking any sense of wit makes for dry viewing. It doesn’t help that the transfer is even more lifeless, or that there are no extras related to the film itself, not even a trailer or audio commentary. Fans of Merchant Ivory might want to invest 90-minutes into the film just to see how their favorite producer/director team influenced British art cinema. Everyone else would do better rewatching Roman Polanski’s Tess.