Summertime (1955) Review

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A lonely American woman travels to Venice, Italy, for her long-awaited dream vacation - only to find herself embarking on a brief encounter with the handsome owner of an antiques shop.


Selecting just one favourite David Lean film is like choosing which child to save. Brief Encounter, Lawrence Of Arabia and Great Expectations made up three of the nation’s Top Five when the BFI compiled Britain’s 100 Favourite Films Of The 20th Century. Bridge On The River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago and Oliver Twist also showed strongly.

It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that the film reputed to be Lean’s own favourite was the comparatively neglected 1955 gem Summertime, a romantic drama starring Katharine Hepburn at the height of her powers and Venice, never more bewitchingly filmed than by cinematographer Jack Hildyard (an Oscar-winner for Bridge On The River Kwai).

The film, adapted by H. E. Bates and Lean from Arthur (West Side Story) Laurents’ play The Time Of The Cuckoo, can definitely be seen as a companion piece to Brief Encounter. It, too, deals delicately with an adulterous temptation, but with considerably more joy and somewhat less guilt (plus, woo hoo, some actual sex) than the decent, agonised, stiff-upper-lipped British protagonists of the earlier film enjoy.

Summertime (first released in the UK with the not inappropriate title Summer Madness) is a charmer from the opening credits, a series of witty paintings depicting a redheaded woman, artwork and sound effects conveying impressions of her journey from New York to London and Paris before a train (a trademark Lean long shot) approaches the Venice lagoon.

Miss Jane Hudson from Akron, Ohio, is an independent woman of a certain age (Hepburn was 48 at the time) who has saved for years to visit Europe, soak up culture, buy cheaper stuff and, just perhaps, look for a mysterious something else in life.

Always a believer in pictures over words, Lean has a finely tuned instrument in La Hepburn, whose slender, elegant frame vibrates with loneliness and longing as she subtly observes the relationships, mating rituals and companionship of couples and couplings all around her. She’s also a mistress of comic timing, including taking a memorable tumble into a Venetian canal (which gave her an eye infection that plagued her for the rest of her life).

The seductiveness of Venice makes an inevitability of the love affair with married Rossano Brazzi (also giving a wonderful, feeling performance) - whose face, when he first appears sitting behind Jane and checks her out from ankle to nape at a café in the vibrant Piazza San Marco, is a superb, classic sketch of the practiced Italian stud. Notions like the repressed American spinster’s awakening in the hands of the appreciative Italian lover may be as dated as the self-denial of Brief Encounter. But as in that earlier film, the art, craft and emotion have aged beautifully. Much as Hepburn did. Va bene.

Not one of his best but as the personal favourite of director David Lean's outstanding back catalogue, this is well worth a look.