Deep South v.1 n.3 (Spring, 1995)
Starring: Emma Thompson, Jonathan Pryce, Steven Waddington, Samuel West,
Rufus Sewell, Penelope Wilton, Janet McTeer, Peter Blythe, Jeremy
Northam, Alex Kingston, Sebastian Harcombe, Richard Clifford.
Directed by: Christopher Hampton.
Screenplay by: Christopher Hampton.
Musical Score by Michael Nyman
The nature of love is hard to pinpoint. To a world obsessed with sex, the obvious tragic lovers are pairings such as Tristram and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Deirdre and Naoise, Guinevere and Lancelot. However, Christopher Hampton, in his latest film Carrington has bought two unconventional lovers to the fore, presenting a love-story which is touching, beautiful, and moving.
It is the story of Dora Carrington, a young painter and fringe member of the Bloomsbury Group. In 1915 she met Lytton Strachey, an older, and homosexual, writer. Their physical attraction soon died but what was left in its place was a deep and abiding love for one another, a love that amounted to worship on the part of Carrington. Strachey was more than just her lover and friend; he was her mentor, and the central object of her existence. "He was more completely all my life than it is possible for any one person to be" she wrote to Rosamond Lehmann. His death in 1932 totally destroyed her, and resulted in her own suicide two months later.
Carrington was a complex and fascinating character, but no film could hope to deal with the wealth of questions her life raises. Hampton has chosen to concentrate on one aspect of her life, her love for Lytton Strachey. In doing so he leaves out areas of her life which are intriguing and which do, in various ways, impinge on her relationship with Lytton. Carrington conducted various affairs with other men and women throughout her life, but only four are mentioned in the film. Of these four, all in some way involve Lytton. It is odd that the other affairs have been left out because, as it remains, Carrington's sexuality seems to be totally tied up in Lytton, but such was not the case. By ignoring her liberal attitude to changing sexual partners, one gets the impression that sex was more important to her, and thus to her relationship with Lytton, than it actually was. The idea of their love being special, and removed from sexual implications, is then lost.
One interesting area of Carrington's life which Hampton has ignored is her bi-sexuality. All sources agree Carrington had a hatred of being a woman, and that it was this hatred which made her fear sexual intercourse. The only time she seems to have been free of this dislike of her femaleness was in her relationship with Henrietta Bingham, and in her relationship with Lytton, as he responded to her in an androgynous way. This perhaps gives us the clue to part of her devotion to Lytton -- he responded to her as person and not as a sexual creature as did Mark Gertler.
Although the film is about Carrington, Lytton Strachey obviously has a major presence. Jonathan Pryce was a well-deserving winner of the Cannes Best Actor award for his gentle portrayal of a complex man. His love for the young Carrington is never doubted, even at those times when she herself feels her dependence on the man will alienate him. Through all of his love affairs elsewhere, he retains a special love for her, and his tenderness and fondness towards the childishly endearing Carrington is always evident. His letter to her (following a sad epistle from Carrington herself, regretting her dependence on him, and her need for reassurance from him) is a beautiful moment as he, settled in a warm golden Italian setting, sets down his feelings for the woman he cares so deeply about, crying as he realises just what she does mean to him. Similarly the scene on his death bed is touching as he gives Carrington the last gift he can give her -- the assurance that she was the most important woman in his life. It is Carrington's justification for the years of devotion she has given.
Despite his sparkling presence, Lytton Strachey is not the hero of Carrington. His real-life persona was as urbane and witty as his screen-character, but it is the love and dedication of Carrington which colours this film, and adds the element of pathos and wonder. Emma Thompson's Carrington is a delight to watch. She has captured the childlike and emotional character of the painter, yet never allows her to deteriorate into an irritating self-abasement. Carrington's devotion to Strachey has the potential to infuriate, yet both main characters work to prevent such impatience forming. Lytton's love for Carrington is everywhere evident, and Carrington's decision to love Lytton is very clearly made with full knowledge of what he is, and full responsibility for it is taken. Pity for the woman cannot, and is not, felt under such circumstances. Her own life does not suffer -- despite her low-key support for Lytton, she produces work of her own, and she carries on a sexual life that complements, rather than encroaches on, her time with Lytton.
Carrington's and Lytton's story is one of deep emotion which the medium of film is well placed to show. The exclusion of all issues but those central to this love-story makes for a tight, well-focussed film, backed up by an unobtrusive musical score. The direction is slow and quiet, with an emphasis on the emotional life of the main characters. In many ways it is a similar film to another of Hampton's film adaptions, Dangerous Liaisons, where much of the action hinges on the socially conditioned responses of characters who must then undergo revision of their emotions when real feeling takes hold of them.
Contrasted with Carrington and Lytton is the exotic and artistic Bloomsbury world which was the tumultuous backdrop for the abiding love of the couple. Penelope Wilton is a marvellous and eccentric Lady Ottoline Morrell, living life flamboyantly. Holroyd says of her:
She was determined to infiltrate the lives of these artists and intellectuals . . . share their 'experiences of the soul', perform as their ministering angel, femme inspiratrice, lover, champion. (Holroyd, p. 221)
She succeeds in this, with her most memorable moments in the movie coming when she dances a gorgeously avant garde dance with Lytton; and when she lectures to a bored and irritated Carrington on the evils of virginity.
Carrington's lovers are also well-drawn: Rufus Sewell gives perhaps the weakest performance as a dark, dissipated and violent Mark Gertler; but Samuel West's Gerald Brenan is first touching, but increasingly confining, as the shy and earnest young man who finds himself drawn into the tempestuous world of Carrington's emotions. The tanned ordinariness of Steven Waddington's Ralph Partridge provides the perfect foil for the waspish, dark Lytton, and the mercurial Carrington.
The loves and lives of the two are played out against superb backdrops and landscapes. Carrington's affair with Gerald Brenan is imaged with views of the White Horse and the Wiltshire Downs, interspersed with shots of his home. The nature of their affair is summed up with these two different settings. The freedom of the Downs conflict with the more fettered home setting as Gerald increasing wants more from Carrington than she will give. This is also apparent in her final affair with Beacus Penrose (a laconic Jeremy Northam). Their affair takes place mainly aboard his yacht, where, in a setting free from the confines of the land, Carrington experiences a better sexual relationship than any she has had before. However, he tires of her, and in a scene where the water imagery of the sea changes from a kind force to that of a drenching storm, Carrington finds he has left her pregnant, thus more fettered than she wishes to be.
Carrington is full of the painter's own art-works. Showing a wide range of styles they exemplify her multi-faceted and colourful personality, and provide, in many instances, a visual symbol for her inner emotions. Thus at early stages in her love affairs with Lytton, Ralph, and Gerald, she is seen painting portraits of them. Painting, as she herself says to Lytton, is an intensely personal thing, and not for public show.
Hampton cleverly intertwines humour and pathos into their first meetings. The war forms a backdrop to the growing love of the couple, and it soon becomes evident that neither is really in control of their feelings towards the other. Carrington, childish in an over-large pair of blue-striped pjamas (which feature again and again in their meetings) creeps into Lytton's room, determined to cut off his beard to punish him for kissing her earlier that day. He opens his eyes, and she is instantly captivated by the man. Lytton, dark and bearded, asks Carrington to move in with him, and is genuinely disappointed when she declines. Their different personalities are apparent from the first when Vanessa Bell (Janet McTeer) introduces them: Lytton is urbane, ironic and collected; Carrington is awkward and self-conscious. His wry humour and her childishly naive and angry answers make the first phase of their relationship curiously compelling as they overcome the obvious problems to find a greater understanding and deep love for one another. Placed against this pathos are moments of humour: Lytton at the hearing for Conscientious Objectors; Lytton at Asheham House; Carrington's indignant refusal of his kiss. This thread of humour characterises the early part of their relationship: Lytton's brand of irony is met by Carrington's bemused fascination at almost every turn.
As their lives progress, the nature of their love changes. The need to be together remains, but it is tempered by Carrington's dog-like devotion and acceptance of Lytton as a mentor; and on his side, by his need for independence. The most poignant moments of the film occur with such clashes: he, caught up with a new lover, telephones to say he won't be home, and she, holding off the tears, faces a desolate week-end without him. Or, Carrington, sitting alone on the dark lawn watches the various relationships going on in the lighted rooms under her roof, but is only moved by Lytton's relationship with his new lover. As the camera moves back to show her, a small isolated figure in front of a lit-up house, one realises that this is a metaphor for Carrington's life: by choosing to love Lytton she has forever placed herself outside the main frame of well-lit normality.
Because one sympathizes with Carrington's choices, however unconventional they seem, the final scenes are moving and uplifting rather than saddening. Carrington's decision to kill herself when she realises there is no hope left for Lytton is not a gesture of defeat, but is rather a final act of love. One is rather disappointed when the attempt is foiled. Her despair after his death, and her attempts to live with that grief are extremely harrowing, probably because they are all internal, and intensely private scenes. Carrington crouching alone in a gaily painted room while her voice talks of her emptiness has an immediate impact, as do the scenes where, always alone, she gifts away his belongings, burns his spectacles, and plants bulbs. The last act, mistakenly seen as sign of returning interest in life by Frances (Alex Kingston) is really the making of a mutual grave-site.
Carrington's final decision to shoot herself is totally understandable -- the pain of loss is only bearable at that early stage if one believes the loss is only temporary, and the loved one will return in some form.
I avoid allowing my thoughts to even approach Lytton. If for a moment thay break through my fences I at once feel so utterly miserable that it is only by thinking there will be only a few more weeks, I can bear the pain. (Carrington's diary, p. 491)
Tears do not assauge the feelings caused by this decision -- a love and a grief as deep as Carrington's can only end in mutual death.
The film is true to the spirit of Carrington's love for Lytton. The extraneous matter of her life has been left out, making the love for Lytton all the more poignant. Carrington works because the audience are faced with what they perhaps don't want to see: that a great and strong love can exist without a sexual component. Carrington's life was unusual, but it was a full and rewarding life, and in the end, one can only applaud a love so strong.
Carrington, Dora, Carrington: Letters and Extracts from her Diaries, edited by David Garnett (Jonathan Cape Ltd, London, 1970)
Holroyd, Michael, Lytton Strachey: The New Biography (Chatto and Windus: London, 1994)