How many kinds of romantic experience really exist, how many strange and unruly paths can the human heart stumble on in its search for happiness? For Lytton Strachey, his life with Dora Carrington gave evidence of “a great deal of a great many kinds of love.” Thoughtful, dense with emotion, preeminently human, “Carrington” explores that intimate but maddening affair of the heart and reveals a thicket of conflicted passions seldom encountered on the screen.
Both Strachey, a celebrated writer whose 1918 “Eminent Victorians” revolutionized the modern writing of biography, and Carrington, a talented artist who shared his life from 1915 to 1932, were members of England’s Bloomsbury group, a loose collection of like-minded creative souls. But neither knowledge of nor familiarity with Bloomsbury is necessary to appreciate this empathetic story of a quite unlikely pairing.
The only film to win two major awards at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, including a special jury prize, “Carrington” stars Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce and is the directing debut of writer Christopher Hampton, who won an Oscar for the “Dangerous Liaisons” screenplay and a best book of a musical Tony for “Sunset Boulevard.”
Hampton wrote the script here as well, a situation his director persona was surely grateful for. Well-stocked with engaging conversation and displaying a keen and caring eye for human foibles, Hampton’s screenplay focuses not on the mechanics of Bloomsbury but on the peculiar conundrum of this singular relationship, which caused Carrington to feelingly write to Strachey, “no one will ever know the utter happiness of our life together.”
Why wouldn’t anyone know? Firstly because Strachey was a homosexual who found women’s bodies “subtly offensive,” while Carrington, after a somewhat asexual start, was passionately heterosexual. Though they lived together for more than a decade, neither had any intention of remaining celibate, and what “Carrington” particularly investigates is what happens when sexual drives and emotional needs are at cross-purposes.
The compromises Carrington and Strachey made, the pain their conflicting sexual entanglements caused each other, are all shown, underlining why Michael Holroyd, whose magisterial Strachey biography is the basis of Hampton’s script, wrote that the couple’s “amatory gyrations produced a tragi-comedy of intensely felt emotions.”
Yet, and this is the story’s fascination, the film equally emphasizes the deep connection these two had for each other, what Carrington called “the very big and devastating love” they shared. Though the sands of their various sexual relationships kept shifting, their care for each other was the one constant in their lives, a port they could always return to when the storms outside got too rough.
Essential in re-creating all this emotion are the film’s pair of stars. Jonathan Pryce, best known for starring in “Miss Saigon” on stage, gives a superb performance, theatrical in the best sense, as the biting, trenchant Strachey, a precise and imposing figure capable of putting a malignant twist on even harmless phrases like “Oh, I see.”
When he won the best actor award at Cannes, Pryce said that he probably had more fun playing Strachey’s life than the man did living it, and that energy is always obvious. Exactly looking the part down to Strachey’s famous standoffish beard, Pryce conveys the right combination of hauteur and tentativeness in a part bristling with direct quotations from Strachey’s acerbic writings, like his thought that “idealists are so much trouble. You can never convince them there’s no such thing as the ideal.”
Because her title role is less flashy, it is possible to ignore how critical Emma Thompson is in all this. Her Carrington is a pulled-together, centered performance, the solid counterpoint to Pryce’s necessary flamboyance. With her evident sincerity and the ability to express shades of feeling without words, Thompson has the presence capable of making Carrington’s considerable emotional gyrations sympathetic at all times.
Certainly the pair’s initial encounter, at a country weekend at Vanessa Bell’s house, was less than promising. Strachey at first mistakes her for a boy, tries to kiss her anyway, only to be told icily “would you mind not.” Carrington is so irked she sneaks into Strachey’s bedroom in the early morning, intent on cutting off his beard, but, in a delicate reverse twist on the Samson story, finds to her surprise that her feelings prevent her from doing so.
Thrown together a good deal because she is trying to flee from the attentions of painter Mark Gertler (an overwrought Rufus Sewell), Carrington and Strachey find, to their surprise as much as that of their friends, that they are ideal companions. They even move in together in a country mill at Tidmarsh, Berkshire, to Gertler’s great horror. “He’s a disgusting person,” he fumes at Carrington, who calmly replies, “You always have to put up with something.”
Over the course of their years together, what Carrington and Strachey most have to put up with is each other’s taste in lovers. Perhaps the most curious situation the film details involves Ralph Partridge (Steven Waddington), a handsome blockhead who falls carnally for Carrington at the same time that Strachey falls platonically for him. “Ladies in love with buggers, and buggers in love with womanizers, and the price of coal going up too,” Strachey wrote to Carrington with typical wit. “Where will it all end?”
Helped by Michael Nyman’s energetic score and strategic use of Schubert’s String Quintet in C, “Carrington” provides the kind of rich and thoughtful pleasures not often encountered. Its story of a love that could not fit into conventional boundaries is as intelligent and idiosyncratic as the performances that give it life.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong sexuality and language. Times guidelines: more genteel than shocking.
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Emma Thompson: Dora Carrington
Jonathan Pryce: Lytton Strachey
Steven Waddington: Ralph Partridge
Rufus Sewell: Mark Gertler
Samuel West: Gerald Brennan
A Polygram Filmed Entertainment presentation of Freeway/Shedlo production, in association with Cinea & Orsans and Le Studio Canal+, released by Gramercy Pictures. Director Christopher Hampton. Producers Ronald Shedlo & John McGrath. Executive producers Francis Boespflug, Philippe Carcassone, Fabienne Vonier. Screenplay Christopher Hampton, based on the book “Lytton Strachey” by Michael Holroyd. Cinematographer Denis Lenoir. Editor George Akers. Costumes Penny Rose. Music Michael Nyman. Production design Caroline Amies. Art director Frank Walsh. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.
* In limited release throughout Southern California.