Carrington (United Kingdom, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Love comes in many forms -- platonic, romantic, and sexual -- and this is the issue at the heart of Carrington, a cinematic biography of artist Dora Carrington and her near-lover, writer Lytton Strachey. Though Dora, a heterosexual woman who didn't lose her virginity until she was in her twenties, and Strachey, an avowed homosexual, each had an assortment of male bed partners, they were intensely devoted to each other with a passion that was "all absorbing" and "self-abasing". Even without a sexual element, their love was transcendent, majestic, and ultimately tragic, for one could not live without the other.

Screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Total Eclipse) makes a successful directorial debut with this picture, an artistic and emotional examination of the seventeen year liaison between Dora (Emma Thompson) and Strachey (Jonathan Pryce). The movie is historically accurate, but its focus is less on the events of the time than on the relationship between the principals. Carrington is a special love story that challenges the intellect with as much vigor as it touches the heart. Hollywood inevitably equates love with lust; Hampton shows that it's possible to have souls in synch even when their sexuality is incompatible.

Lytton Strachey was born in 1880, fifteen years before Dora Carrington. The two met shortly after the onset of World War One. At that point, he was a confirmed pacifist; she wanted nothing more than to be a man so that she could fight. Strachey would go on to write several unique biographies, using a style characterized by "a brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant." The 1918 publication of Eminent Victorians cemented Strachey's literary reputation. Dora, on the other hand, remained a little-known talent during her lifetime, since she painted just for herself and Strachey, not to exhibit or sell.

Carrington is divided into six chapters, most of are named after the men who float in and out of the title character's life. Of course, Strachey is there all the time, a constant supportive and loving presence. In one segment, Dora loses her virginity to ardent suitor Mark Gertler (Rufus Sewell). In another, she marries Ralph Partridge (Steven Waddington), primarily because Strachey is attracted to him. This leads to a bizarre triangle where only one relationship is consummated. Then there's an tryst with Partridge's best friend, Gerald Brenan (Samuel West), and a later affair which results in an unwanted pregnancy.

The film is beautifully photographed, with each scene carefully composed. One of Carrington's most poignant -- and lasting -- images is of Dora sitting outside of Ham Spray House at night. As she gazes in through lighted windows at the various couplings taking place, it's possible to feel her loneliness. The stunning sequence is made all the more impressive by the slow, deliberate manner in which it was filmed.

Thompson, as always, is a joy to behold. Here, with a Buster Brown haircut, the actress gives a carefully restrained, subtly nuanced performance that can stand toe-to-toe with her Oscar-winning turn in Howards End. The versatile Jonathan Pryce, better known to American audiences for his Infiniti TV spots than for film roles like Brazil, is every bit Thompson's equal. It's a rare pleasure to watch two top-notch equals play off one another. There is tangible chemistry between them, although not of the conventional sort.

Unlike Thompson's most recent Merchant-Ivory entry, The Remains of the Day, Carrington's tone is not one of restraint. Strachey and Dora don't have sex, but their love is definitely neither unrequited nor unacknowledged. This is a passionate, although never gratuitous, motion picture, with a clear view of how it wants to portray its characters and their complex relationship. The result is a memorable portrait of two of history's most unique lovers.

Carrington (United Kingdom, 1995)

Run Time: 2:02
U.S. Release Date: 1995-11-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Violence, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1