The peculiar love affair joining the biographer/ essayist Lytton Strachey and the painter Dora Carrington was played out, early in our century, on the periphery of London's celebrated Bloomsbury Group. But for intensity and vision, this bohemian union may have surpassed even Virginia Woolf's novelistic experiments or John Maynard Keynes's revolutionary economic theories. For seventeen years, Strachey and Carrington helped redefine an entire society--while sexually coupling perhaps twice.
Screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons) has been trying for two decades, on and off, to get the oft-shelved Carrington onto the screen, and the long-awaited results are admirable. Hampton's primary source, Michael Holroyd's vintage biography Lytton Strachey, reveals its subject as the Oscar Wilde of his time--a pacifist in World War I, a rebel in the face of Victorian convention, a rapier wit who satirized his contemporaries, and a homosexual. At a hearing on his conscientious-objector status, he kept the court at bay while he inflated a rubber seat cushion, explaining: "I am a martyr to the piles."
Wisely, though, Hampton has shifted his focus from Strachey to Carrington--who threw off the social and sexual shackles of her time through a long series of passionate but unhappy affairs, but found real love only with Strachey. Hampton, who also directed, provides all the attractions of a bed-hopping, ego-bruising soap opera, but it is the deep social and aesthetic rebellion underlying the odd affair that really fuels the film. Strachey, Carrington and those drawn into their wide orbit, we learn, defied Victorian hypocrisy while seeking to live their own lives well--a notion with plenty of fresh appeal amid America's current rage for New Right moralizing.
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The film is beautiful to look at (credit cinematographer Denis Lenoir), stirring to listen to (Hampton's dialogue is both literate and inventive), and demonstrates, in no uncertain terms, the crucial difference between love and desire. Hampton's stars include the estimable Emma Thompson (of Branagh film fame), whose Carrington is full of yearning and intelligence, and bearded Jonathan Pryce, whose Strachey is all cold wit and wisdom.