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The Odd Couple

Christopher Hampton is best known in this country for his dramatization, on stage and screen, of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but he has been an eminent figure in the British theater for more than thirty years. For twenty of those years he has been interested in the story of Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey and has been involved in several aborted attempts to film it. At last Carrington (Gramercy) arrives, and in a way we can all be glad that it was delayed because Hampton became empowered to direct it, and his two leading actors wouldn't have been available twenty years ago.

These days a certain ridiculous risk is involved in making a film set in Britain before World War One: rote cries of "Masterpiece Theater" rend the air on cue. In this case, the cries, already audible, are especially dumb: the Carrington-Strachey affair is deployed before us for its depth of character. It would be silly, even ungrateful, to deny the benefits bestowed by Caroline Amies, the production designer, and Penny Rose, the costume designer. (I confess that I wondered how they made Strachey's tweed hat crinkle in just the right way.) But the appurtenances of class and of conscious bohemianism are integral to the characters themselves, not imposed as decor. Settings and story are unified.

That story will be familiar to those who have read Michael Holroyd's Lytton Strachey or Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina's Carrington. Hampton's screenplay is derived from the former. Dora Carrington, who disliked her first name and never used it, was born in 1893 to a middle-class family, and, apparently sufficiently moneyed, devoted herself to a life of painting--amateur in the sense that she wasn't concerned with exhibiting and selling. Strachey, born in 1880, the son of a general, was educated at Cambridge, where he joined friends who later became what was called the Bloomsbury Group. Strachey, not very well off, wrote reviews mostly, without any strenuous ambition to get rich by writing. He and Carrington met in 1915 when he was well known in his circle as a homosexual, and Carrington was equally well known as a virgin. She soon changed her state, he never changed his, but the central fascination about them is that theirs is a love story.

Whether anything sexual ever happened between them, as may possibly have been the case, is not the point. They certainly had active sexual lives apart from each other. Yet they were mutually devoted, he in his designedly reticent yet airy way, constantly striving to translate experience into Wildean epigrams, she much more unguarded and frankly emotional, percipient and patient. Basically what is portrayed here is marital love without sex. Though each was active with other partners--Carrington even married someone else--their love was so strong that his death in 1932 became her own death sentence.

A cruel joke of fate, their situation? With Olympian detachment, we might say so; yet if Strachey had been heterosexual, he wouldn't have been the person he was, and it's the person he was that Carrington, knowing all about him early on, fell in love with and continued to love. Perhaps it wasn't a joke of fate, just a fate.

Still, it is that fate, settled early for both, that keeps this excellently executed film from being deeply moving. Once the pair fall in love, nothing fundamental changes for either. Each of them has multiple adventures: Strachey's biggest one is in becoming a best-selling author--first with Eminent Victorians--which disconcerts him a bit. The development in the film is in character, not in drama. That development has its rewards, of inflection and reflection, but they are not dramatic; and the finish of the story, for all its pathos, is relatively calm--a termination rather than a climax.

Paradoxically, none of this could be true if the two leading performances were not so fine, if these two characters were not worlds in themselves. Jonathan Pryce has already been garlanded for his Strachey with the Cannes Film Festival prize, and for a change that prize was something more than dim-witted obeisance to propaganda. Pryce, bearded and spindly, like a self-guided marionette, creates the anomaly of a physically weak man whose strength lies in flaunting that weakness. He has the advantage of speaking all the witty lines in the script; still, he himself creates a caustic charm.

Emma Thompson, who is Carrington, got no prize at Cannes, and my personal consolation is that no prize is good enough for her. Talk about the art that conceals art! Thompson never makes us feel that she is mastering a mood or responding tellingly or providing any other individuated touches. A soul, a spirit, a mind--this is not too strong--have been apprehended, and a body has been provided for them. By now we expect this of Thompson, from the spicy modern sex comedy of The Tall Guy through Shakespearean perfection in Much Ado About Nothing to the private-public, volatile yet well-bred Carrington. This film, for all its other brilliancies, would collapse without the central truth of her performance. Even Pryce's scintillation depends on her.

To which I must add mention of assistance she has had. The lighting of her face, in widely varied circumstances, by Denis Lenoir is marvelous. Lenoir doesn't prop up Thompson's acting the way cinematography must sometimes do, but he understands her face and what she needs. To which mention must be added the comfort of Michael Nyman's score, conceived in chamber music terms. I can't remember another film in which a string quartet accompanies sex scenes. Nyman's music bespeaks the world of these people.

Hampton directs with what can be called the courage of his convictions--about these characters. One archetypal instance is the first meeting of Carrington and Strachey. They are fellow-guests at a country house, and after they are introduced, they have nothing to say to each other. They're not much interested in each other. The camera holds them for, I'd guess, a full minute while they attempt to make comments, find few, and are both completely unembarrassed. After the film cuts to the next scene, we realize how tacitly funny that meeting scene was: we feel a tingle of anticipation that this picture is going to be handled intelligently. And it is.

Stanley Kauffmann is a film critic for The New Republic.

By Stanley Kauffmann