Love, Bloomsbury Style

NO SCREENWRITER COULD POSSIBLY have invented the love story at the heart of Carrington, Christopher Hampton's fascinating, moving depiction of the bond between painter Dora Carrington (Emma Thompson) and Bloomsbury giant Lytton Strachey (Jonathan Pryce). Their rule-breaking relation-ship--mostly platonic, but allowing each to have many other lovers--defies the easy psychologizing and tidy dramaturgy that most movies rely on. And that's why it's a great, fresh subject: in its best scenes, "Car-rington" takes us to places of the heart we haven't been, exploring Strachey's credo that there are "a great deal era great many kinds of love."

Sickly, eccentric, acerbic and homosexual, Strachey is taken with Carrington at first sight--he thinks the androgynous girl is a boy. She falls in love with him at an equally odd moment: about to clip the sleeping Lytton's beard with scissors to punish him for making a pass at her, she's overcome with a passion that will determine the rest of their lives.

Writer-director Hampton, using Michael Holroyd's superb biography of Strachey as his bible, has only two hours in which to condense one of the more byzantine bohemian arrangements in history. Carrington (she hated her first name) had many suitors: first the Jewish painter Mark Gertler (Rufus Sewell), driven half mad by her refusal to sleep with him. She then marries the athletic ex-soldier Ralph Partridge (Steven Waddington)--as much to please Lytton, who also adores him--and lives with both men in a happy menage a trois. Soon she takes her husband's best friend, the writer Gerald Brennan (SamuelWest), as her lover. Later she, Partridge and Strachey complicate matters with further affairs (the key omission is Carrington's liaisons with other women).

What could have become a sniggering sex farce is instead a grave yet deliciously witty portrait of two inseparable but independent souls. With so much erotic turf to cover, it's almost inevitable that the later affairs are sketched in perfunctorily. "Car-rington" bites off more than it can chew, but it succeeds where it counts, in illuminating Lytton and Carrington's singular passion.

Strachey, the bitchily brilliant author of "Eminent Victorians," wasn't an easy man to like, and Pryee honors his prickliness. It's an astonishing performance that captures both the fussiness and the diffident courage of the man. Needless to say, he has the best lines--Strachey's own words. Pryce doesn't try to warm his character's cold edges, and yet by the end we understand why this improbable love object-next to whom all the other men seem like puppies--warrants Carrington's adoration.

Thompson strips herself down to a simpler, bolder mode to play a woman at once submissive and willful, who found her strength living in one man's shadow while forcing her other lovers to bend to her rules. It's the more mysterious, difficult role, and Thompson, finding Carrington's ungainly grace, makes her poignantly believable. This is Hampton's impressive debut as a director; he tells his story with a tactful English reserve that allows deep feelings to find their own way to the surface. He's given a great assist from Michael Nyman's score. His music is beautiful, discordant and hauntingly sad, much like "Carrington" itself.