"Who on earth is that ravishing boy?"—Giles Lytton Strachey (Jonathan Pryce) about Dora Carrington (Emma Thompson)
Oh, that wacky Bloomsbury crowd. Virginia Woolf. E.M. Forster. Dora Carrington. You say you've never heard of Dora Carrington, the talented painter? That is probably because Carrington (she hated being called by her first name) rarely exhibited her paintings and never achieved the public attention of the writers in her circle. She is perhaps best known for what she did not do: marry the homosexual writer Giles Lytton Strachey. Screenwriter Christopher Hampton makes his directing debut with this glossy biography tracing the unusual relationship between these two quirky personalities.
England, 1915. A hirsute and rumpled Lytton Strachey arrives by train in the country to visit his friend Ottoline (Penelope Wilton). He is immediately intrigued by the tomboyish Carrington. They act on impulse: he kisses her presumptively; later, she sneaks into his room to cut off his beard, but stops suddenly. Their relationship is a puzzle. Strachey is a homosexual, a cynic, and passive (he goes out of his way to announce his contientious objection to the impending war). Carrington wishes she had been born a boy, is emotional, and socially forward. Later, she embraces her sexuality almost as an act of defiance. But somehow the two find comfort in one another, and their mutual dependence carries them through the rest of their lives.
Christopher Hampton structures Carrington as if it were a book, perhaps like the biographical essays of Strachey's own masterpiece, Eminent Victorians, in which he tears apart the myth of Victorian propriety. Each chapter revolves around a particular man in Carrington's life. While this may imply that Carrington subsumed herself to each of these men, allowing them to define her, her relationships are far more complicated than that. Her first long-term relationship, with painter Mark Gertler (Rufus Sewell), is characterized by Gertler's bitter possessiveness. While all her friends push her to lose her virginity to Gertler, she holds out for the "cold and wise" Strachey, who will sleep in the same bed with her but refuses to consummate their relationship.
Later, Rex "Ralph" Partridge (Steven Waddington) enters the scene. His obvious masculinity draws both Carrington and Strachey, and at Strachey's insistence, the reluctant Carrington marries (mostly so Strachey can pine for Partridge under the same roof). And off to Venice the three of them go on the honeymoon! But the romantic triangle is complicated by Carrington's affair with the nervous Gerald Brenan (Samuel West). This breaks up her marriage, but everyone remains friends.
Friends and lovers continue to accumulate and pair up at Ham Spray House. All this might seem a bit soap-operatic, as the plot follows Carrington's succession of frustrated lovers, while she prefers her "self-abasing" love of Strachey. But director Hampton avoids turning the story into a merely mechanical exercise, a series of cold encounters like a typical costume drama.
And more importantly, he avoids turning all this into sentimental mush. In one deft sequence, Carrington sits outside Ham Spray House, draped in a blanket, watching the loves of her life pair off into new relationships. Hampton moves the camera from window to window, to Carrington and back, and we see in her face glimpses of loneliness and loss. Michael Nyman's precise score avoids the sentimental flourishes of most Hollywood melodrama. There is tragedy here, but also Carrington's acceptance of the rules of the game: she has chosen to play with increasingly curious connections between sexuality and emotional commitment, and she must accept the consequences.
The real strengths of the film are its performances. Emma Thompson gives Carrington plenty of emotional gravity, carrying off scenes that might otherwise seem weepy and sentimental by giving them a touch of the pathological. We never do really understand why Carrington throws herself so completely to Strachey, but we do see that there is a complex psychological need behind her actions. Does Strachey's homosexuality offer her protection from her fear of sexual commitment (she always seems distracted when in bed with other men)? Does her relationship, competing for Strachey's desire, allow her to imagine herself as the boy she has always wanted to be? Hampton wisely avoids imposing a particular interpretation on Carrington's actions, and Thompson's nuanced performance prevents the character from becoming simply generic—or worse, a cipher.
Carrington's balancing act between grounded practicality and romantic longing is countered by Strachey's sharp wit and sense of theatricality. Jonathan Pryce gives a resonant performance, stealing our attention as the self-absorbed, impish Strachey. He makes a show even of handing over a ration card or sitting in a chair. But just as Thompson avoids overplaying Carrington's frustrated desire, Pryce avoids turning Strachey into a foppish gay caricature. Strachey always has a quip ready, but we sense that behind the light in his eyes is a sense of desparation: a man who does not want to be alone in a world that shuns both his desires and his critical eye. When he reads the hosts of positive reviews for Eminent Victorians, basking in the praise and attention, he seems a little relieved to find a review that hates the book. After all, being too well loved is dangerous.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The strong performances keep the film from becoming simply a litany of failed relationships, allowing the characters to stand above the mechanical "chapter" structure (a sign that this screenplay was an early effort of Hampton's, only reaching the screen now). Well directed (if occasionally a little slick: no one seems to get particularly dirty and everyone's hair stays nice and neat) with a decent anamorphic transfer, Carrington shows a few specks of dirt, but looks as good as a recent film should be expected to look. The audio mix, while only 2.0, is clean and full of crisp background sounds, important considering all the gardens and country houses. Unfortunately, a film that might serve as a fine introduction to the freewheeling Bloomsbury aesthetic is presented without much support by MGM. A ten-minute featurette is all that counts for extras (along with the usual theatrical trailer). The featurette offers brief interviews with Pryce, Thompson, Hampton, and so forth. Hampton seems to think Carrington is motivated by her admiration for Strachey's politics. Thompson makes much of Carrington's obsession with her body (protecting her virginity from Gertler, demanding an abortion when she gets pregnant by the dimwitted jock Beacus (Jeremy Northam)). More background on Carrington and Strachey would be welcome here: we even only get to see Carrington's paintings over the closing credits of the feature. Hampton, as both writer and director, would have made an excellent candidate for a commentary track. One odd detail: Hampton based his screenplay on a biography of Strachey, implying that Carrington is second-fiddle in her own story. Indeed, Pryce's performance as Strachey does steal plenty of scenes away from Thompson, but this does not diminish her skills here: Strachey is simply a more colorful character.
Fine performances carry the film, even if it seems a slightly glossy portrayal of the idle intelligentsia of the Bloomsbury circle. Christopher Hampton and company wisely avoid sentimentality in favor of strong characterizations and steady pacing. This disc might have benefited from more extra content, but on the whole, Carrington is worth a look for fans of character-driven period drama.
The court congratulates Christopher Hampton on a successful debut as director. Jonathan Pryce and Emma Thompson are released immediately. MGM is warned to include more extra content, but is released for time served.
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