Criterion Review: SUMMERTIME

Director David Lean’s favorite of his films is gorgeous in this Blu-ray package

British director David Lean (Doctor Zhivago, Brief Encounter) romanticizes Venice in Summertime, a movie bursting with vibrant Technicolor. The 1955 film, based on the Broadway play by Arthur Laurents (West Side Story), depicts an American tourist’s short visit to the Italian city. What makes this story stand out is that a) the tourist is an unmarried woman in her 40s, and b) the tourist is played by Katherine Hepburn.

Jane Hudson (Hepburn) is a working woman who has scrimped and saved to leave her home of Akron, Ohio, for a vacation to Venice. As early as her first moments onscreen leaning out through a window as her train arrives in town, her awe — almost a kind of worship — towards the historic city shines through. She carries an 8mm camera with her while wandering the bridges and alleys of Venice; her camera serves as a way to keep herself from living completely in the moment. This changes when she meets Renato (Rossano Brazzi, South Pacific), a charming Italian shop-owner who sweeps her off her feet.

The cinematography in Summertime is wondrous, with Venice shot so beautifully that tourism numbers to the city increased after the film’s release. Familiar sites such as St. Mark’s Square are shown often. Jane even falls into a canal. The mouthy orphan kid who follows her around tells her at one point, “Venice real difficult for ladies.”

As a life-long fan of Hepburn’s work, I remained hesitant to see Summertime until this summer of 2022. From my previous limited knowledge of the story, I worried that the movie would make this spinster character look sad and pitiful. This is not the case.

Renato is a married man, so a typical happy ending is out of reach for this couple. And yet… Jane is depicted as luminous and fetching throughout Lean’s film, even in moments of melancholy. She remains realistic in her expectations, but keeps her sense of wonder. Her eager hanging out of the train window at the start of the film is paralleled during her wistful, bittersweet farewell.

Summertime is an obvious influence on later films such as Under the Tuscan Sun, which lead their female protagonists into moments of self-realization through time abroad. So in a way, there is a happy ending after all.

This Criterion package includes such special features as:

  • new 4K digital restoration of the film
  • an interview with Lean biographer Melanie Williams about the director’s entry into filmmaking. She notes parallels between this film and his earlier work, Brief Encounter, while also contrasting the original play of Summertime (wherein Renato is more of a heel) to this 1955 film adaptation.
  • a 1963 TV interview with David Lean. The audio on this is fairly challenging to make out.
  • audio clips from a later-in-life interview with Summertime cinematographer Jack Hildyard, mostly about his early career in film. The 1955 movie merits a mention towards the end.
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