Dan Stevens finds Summer in February after Downton

By Tim Masters
Entertainment and arts correspondent, BBC News

  • Published
Dan Stevens and Emily Browning in Summer in February
Image caption,
Dan Stevens and Emily Browning play Gilbert Evans and Florence Carter-Wood in Summer in February

As Summer in February arrives in cinemas, Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens explains why his latest period drama has been years in the making.

Fans of actor Dan Stevens left heartbroken by his shock exit from Downtown Abbey at Christmas might find some comfort in his latest big screen role.

In Summer in February, Stevens is back in period costume as Gilbert Evans, an army officer in Cornwall in the years leading up to World War I.

As the 30-year-old actor points out, his latest character bears more than a passing resemblance to his aristocratic alter-ego in ITV's hit drama.

"We shot this film between series two and three of Downton, so Gilbert Evans does look suspiciously like Matthew Crawley a lot of the time!"

Adapted by retired teacher Jonathan Smith from his own novel, Summer in February tells the story of a tangled love triangle among a colony of bohemian artists, known as the Lamorna Group, on the Cornish coast in 1913.

Dominic Cooper plays painter AJ Munnings, whose relationship with new arrival Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning) puts him at odds with his close friend Gilbert, who oversees the estate where the artists live.

Stevens knew Jonathan Smith from his days as a boarder at Tonbridge School in Kent.

Image caption,
Much of the film was shot on Cornwall's wild coastline

Smith directed the aspiring young actor in several school productions - Stevens auditioned for Macbeth aged 13 - and later encouraged him to read English at Cambridge.

Stevens remembers the "buzz" when his teacher's book - which he describes as "a beautiful novel with mysterious, ethereal qualities" - was published in 1995.

"People seemed very moved by the story, and a lot said it seemed very cinematic."

The film rights were secured in 2006 and Stevens was cast, also taking on a producer role. "I've lived with this book for about half of my life," he says.

"It's been an extraordinary journey - seven or eight years in development.

"It was an amazing coincidence when Downtown came along - I had this project set in 1913 in a big house in my diary alongside another project set in 1913 in a little artists' community in Cornwall."

Yet Stevens isn't worried by the similarity between the two projects.

"There are significant enough differences for me not to feel I was treading exactly the same ground. It's one of those strange coincidences in life that two buses come along at once."

Much of the real-life detail for Smith's novel came from Gilbert Evans's diaries and letters, which had been kept private for some 80 years.

"Jonathan was so hooked by this story of this woman who went down to Cornwall, fell in love with two very different men and married the wrong one," says Stevens.

Image caption,
Dan Stevens read the diaries of Gilbert Evans in preparation for his role

"One thing in particular that very nearly broke my heart was a tiny photograph of Florence, which is pretty much the only photograph we have of her. It is miniscule, not much bigger than a postage stamp.

"It was kept with a feather in a little envelope with all the diaries. You could tell this was the most painful experience that this man had ever had."

Summer in February was shot in early 2012 in many of the Cornwall locations frequented by the Lamorna Group some 100 years earlier.

The cast members playing the artists - among them Hattie Morahan as impressionist painter Laura Knight and Shaun Dingwall as her husband Harold - even took lessons in how to paint in the style of their characters.

"We lived in the hotel where they all lived, we drank in the pub that they drank in - The Wink, an extraordinary place," recalls Stevens.

"The whole community down there has always attracted some eccentric types, some of whom still live down there. Living in that community really infused the film.

"It felt like a magical experience going down to Cornwall and bringing this little hidden bubble of history to life."

Summer in February is out in the UK on 14 June.

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