B y S t a c e y R i c h t e r
ONCE UPON A time women guarded their virtue and wore dresses, even when tramping through the woods. At this time, most women resembled Emma Thompson. Men were concerned about honor and never swore in the presence of ladies or children, and if they didn't look like Hugh Grant, they had a Hugh Grant haircut. Everyone lived in beautiful houses with lovely wainscoting and a misty garden, and at night they all climbed into bed together and did it like rabbits.
From Barry Lyndon to Dangerous Liaisons, period movies have aimed to satisfy our desire to be politely titillated. These films share a longing for the forbidden, for a time when sexuality was cloaked in taboo and shame--all the better to eat you with, my dear. According to these movies, the only thing sexier than sex is transgression.
Carrington, this year's faux Merchant/Ivory production, attempts to fit into this pattern. Set between the wars, it's the story of the relationship between Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey, members of Bloomsbury, a loosely affiliated group of English writers, critics and artists as famous for their free lifestyles as for their works. Emma Thompson plays Carrington, a virginal painter who goes by her last name because she finds her first so atrocious. She finds herself smitten with Strachey (Jonathan Pryce), a gay writer. Her admiration for Strachey is so transparent that her fiancee Mark (Rufus Sewell) enlists him to thaw Carrington's romantic reserve, never imagining she might not be "safe" with him. Oddly, Carrington and Strachey fall into a sweet, largely non-physical love. The two set up house together and share a passionate friendship that lasts a lifetime.
As a true story their relationship is fascinating--it's a rare trick for two people to separate sex and love and remain devoted to each other for so many years. As a film, though, Carrington has the feel of a literary bodice-ripper. Both Carrington and Strachey take various lovers, separately and together, and as the film progresses it focuses on their love lives to the exclusion of their artistic lives. At the urging of Strachey, Carrington first takes up with Ralph Partridge (Steven Waddington), an overgrown boy scout with fascistic longings that Strachey also fancies. After that she tackles Ralph's best friend and a sea captain, rejecting each when she realizes they want to possess her. Through it all, she remains devoted to Strachey.
Carrington and Strachey are interesting for many reasons, including their talent and intelligence, but the film seems primarily concerned with cataloguing their bedroom ventures. Part of the point of this seems to be that during the Age of Repression, it took imagination and courage to fool around with such abandon--but the curious thing is, from watching the movie it doesn't look like it took much courage. Practically all the secondary characters are free-thinking artists; Carrington and Strachey live in the country and are visited only by lovers and potential lovers. There are no neighbors peering over the fence; Carrington's mom isn't bugging her about why she doesn't have children--in short, the revolutionary spirit of rebellion that was supposed to have characterized these people's lives is missing because there's nothing here to rebel against.
For a portrait of two scandalous lives, Carrington is pretty conservative. The erotic slant of the movie is decidedly heterosexual, though the sex lives of the characters were not. Emma Thompson is shown with men in all sorts of compromising positions, but of Jonathan Pryce we are treated to nothing more than a back-lit kiss through a window. Homoeroticism stays in the background--a kind of exotic backdrop to the romps of the straight characters. It's from homosexuality rather than from the repressive times that this movie derives its largely non-historical sense of the forbidden. Maybe there's no need to go back in time--apparently, some kinds of sexuality are still considered off limits.
Emma Thompson rolls through this film with the same bovine calm she brings to all her roles, but the real gem of a performance here is by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce, nearly unrecognizable behind a thick, rabbinical beard, seems the very embodiment of the vaguely ill, boy-chasing Strachey. He has a kind of Oscar Wilde, clipped-syllable wittiness down cold, delivering lines from Strachey's books like he wrote them himself: "These new young people are delightful--they have no morals and they never speak." His intelligent, inspired performance saves Carrington from becoming just another smutty fairy tale.
Carrington is playing at The Loft (795-0500) cinema.
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