Although ostensibly a film, Carrington, about painter Dora Carrington (Emma Thompson) and her decades-long platonic love affair with writer Lytton Strachey (Jonathan Pryce), is pregnant with literary conceits: the nature of true love as spiritual, not physical; the interdependence of strong creative personalities; the anti-Victorian ethic of early bohemianism.
The story's scholarly roots don't complement the movie, however. Rather, its highbrow notions fail to translate visually, and they suffocate the picture. The passionate idiosyncrasies that form the basis of the relationship between Carrington and Lytton remain conceptual and abstract, and instead of conveying any insight, the movie makes them thick and disagreeable.
Playwright-turned-screenwriter Christopher Hampton makes his debut as a director here, and despite occasional, sometimes successful efforts to give the film an interesting look (the well-composed shots on the moors of England are often beautiful tableaux, and the awkward, uncomfortable silences have internal tension highlighted by dark, painterly tones), he seems completely overcome by the medium in general. Individual scenes lack pacing and structure.
In its obsession with showing the infinite permutations in a complex series of relationships, the script neglects essential narrative conventions. We are told Lytton is a writer, but all we ever see him do is reading others' books; his announcement that his novel has finally been published is a bit startling, since we haven't seen him writing one. Carrington, for her part, spends much of the first half of the movie trying to preserve her virginity, but the moment when she loses it (after the repeated lobbying of family and friends) is unexpected and vague. There's no apparent motivation or reason for it, and the circumstances are equally obscure: Was she raped, or did she just have a change of heart? We never really understand, and since the movie dedicates so much time to making us care about when and where, the suddenness smacks of a cop-out. It's as though Hampton merely lost interest or became too hesitant to show the dirty side of her decision, so he just decided to move along, like a cop waving onlookers away from the scene of an accident.
Almost every scene in Carrington suffers from similar lapses in logic. Transitions in plot are abrupt and unsatisfying--Hampton seems incapable of allowing a scene to play itself out, and imposes a brittle, choppy rhythm that you can't predict or become comfortable with. He does, though, have a keen ear for the punctilious dialogue of upper-class Brits, and the script has a number of amusing lines. "I must say I find your people enchanting," Lytton opines about a younger lover. "They have no morals and they never speak."
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Lytton's milquetoast archness gives him the freedom to spew forth streams of bon mots on an audience of clingers-on and patrons when you otherwise would expect him to be an unwelcome guest. In the tradition of Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Roundtable, his bitterness is enthralling, and an insult from Lytton bests high praise from anyone else. Pryce, looking like Dostoievski, seems completely at home in the part. He dashes off Lytton's more caustic remarks with a casual cruelty that occasionally hits home. "Women's bodies I find subtly offensive," he says, and the dread Carrington feels on hearing this is effective. To the extent the movie works at all, it is because Pryce's performance draws us in. (Thompson, with her Prince Valiant-inspired page-boy haircut, appears totally puzzled all the time, and she imparts no weight to Carrington through her performance.)
Hampton's obvious admiration for his ostensibly ground-breaking heroes hampers a serious investigation of their motivations. His thesis--that Lytton, Carrington, and the string of suitors and friends who rotate through their circle of sexual openness are the first true hippies, bohemians before it became fashionable--is conveyed in such a painfully clipped, shy voice that it never takes on enough significance for the audience to care. This was also true of last year's Tom & Viv; both movies are so stately in their presentation of sexual issues, you sense the filmmakers are chastising you for showing an interest in the very bedroom antics that are so integral to the plot. Hampton's haughty tone implies that yes--the sex lives of these two figures are pertinent to a serious study of them, but heaven forbid we actually show anything. The movie has no range of emotion because of Hampton's single-mindedness about preserving the characters' sanctity.
Carrington's uneven mood, stranded somewhere between being uplifting and gloomy, fails to convey the kind of "beyond sex" love story that The Crying Game achieved. It's so dignified, so rapt in its subject matter, the movie has no emotional force; everything seems filtered through the lens of a press agent. In the end, despite all Lytton and Carrington do that is supposed to be "shocking," Hampton winds up showing us only that their lives weren't terribly exciting. It's a shame wasting two hours of your life to learn that.
Carrington. Polygram Filmed Entertainment. Emma Thompson, Jonathan Pryce. Written and directed by Christopher Hampton. Now showing.