“She had many lovers but only one love.”
Director: Christopher Hampton
Cast: Emma Thompson, Jonathan Pryce, Steven Waddington
Synopsis: The platonic relationship between artist Dora Carrington and writer Lytton Strachey in the early 20th century.
Although bohemian painter Dora Carrington forms the focal point of this story, Christopher Hampton’s movie is actually based on a biography of the homosexual author Lytton Strachey, with whom she shared an intimate — but apparently platonic — relationship for sixteen years. Perhaps this explains why the film focuses so much on the sexual nature of Carrington with very little time devoted to her art (of which we see very little) or, in fact, any other aspect of her life. This is a shame, because it weakens what is otherwise an extremely well-made, literate and absorbing story; because so much of Carrington’s character is left unexplored her behaviour comes across as irrational at times and we are left with the feeling that Hampton’s script barely touched the surface of the woman.
Emma Thompson’s portrayal of the central character is excellent even though she can never quite shake off that ‘jolly hockey sticks’ aura she has about her. She brings a sense of depth to a character mostly defined only in terms of her sexual exploits and her ‘self-abasing’ love for a homosexual. Johnathan Pryce, an undervalued actor, gets all the best lines and gives a wonderful performance as Strachey which, while it may stray dangerously close to parody at times, adroitly captures the hopelessness of his love for Carrington and of the difficulties faced by a homosexual in a country that, for much of the period during which the film takes place, was still clinging to its Victorian values. His effeminacy is continually contrasted with the masculinity of the other men in Carrington’s life, and his lack of passion in contrast to that displayed by Mark Gertler (an overwrought Rufus Sewell), for example, only serves to deepen the mystery of Carrington’s attraction.
The film is divided into chapters designed to indicate different stages in Carrington’s life and her relationship with Strachey. Initially, these come across as a series of tiny vignettes that cause the film to falter a little until Carrington and Strachey’s initial frostiness towards one another begins to thaw and the narrative begins to flow. Their relationship is central to the plot: other people — mostly lovers of Carrington, but also a boyfriend of Strachey’s — move in and out of their lives, but Dora and Lytton are the only constants. In a wonderfully staged scene towards the end of the film, Carrington watches from her garden at night as Lytton and his boyfriend prepare for bed, and as her former husband retires with his new wife, and her sense of exclusion, while not overtly displayed, is tangible nevertheless. Thompson and Pryce, in their scenes together, share a relaxed familiarity with each other that gives the viewer a real sense of watching a couple that have been married for years.
You don’t have to be an admirer of the works of Carrington and Strachey to enjoy this film — you don’t even have to be remotely familiar with them or their work — but you do need the sort of patience required to enjoy a film that unfolds at its own pace, and to endure the long-suffering Carrington’s quiet torment.
(Reviewed 13th September 2005)