Polish-born Pawlikowski has already filtered his daring background in documentaries (for which he chewed the breeze with an extreme Russian nationalist and hung out with a crazed Serbian warlord) into two exceptional features, both made and set here in Britain: ‘Twockers’ and ‘Last Resort’. Famously, he also abandoned the doomed project that morphed into the dreary ‘Sylvia’ when he tired of his producers’ restrictions. Now, with typical bravado, Pawlikowski has chopped up and distilled Helen Cross’ source novel into a free-wheeling, romantic and singular study of teenage sexuality and obsession that unites two exceptional and exceptionally well-paired young actresses, Natalie Press and Emily Blunt.
Alison Goldfrapp’s dreamy, mysterious music sets the tone for this lyrical exploration of one summer in the lives of two Yorkshire teenagers who hail from very different sides of the tracks. Mona (Press) is instinctive, inquisitive and poor, living in an empty pub with her newly converted, born-again Christian brother Phil (Paddy Considine), while Tamsin (Blunt) is mannered, well-spoken, lonely and fond of playing Edith Piaf and quoting Nietzsche without really knowing what she’s talking about. The combination is entrancing. The pair meet on a sun-kissed country road and never seem to part – living, sleeping, wandering and exploring together for the rest of a charmed summer, only interrupting their capsule existence to wonder at Phil’s strange and suspect religious obsession.
Much is made of Pawlikowski’s approach to filmmaking, which incorporates extended periods of casting, improvisation and workshop and an intense, DIY approach to the shoot itself, when he likes to re-create scenes even as the camera rolls. It’s a documentary approach, but the film never feels like it: the dialogue is rich; the acting superb. Furthermore, Pawlikowski cares for social truth, but never treads awkwardly in this territory. For him, everything is in the characters: they reveal everything and much else is concealed or only subtly revealed in the background. Here, that makes for an unusually hypnotic, involving and charming experience.