They should at least have called it “Lytton & Dora.” Despite (and because of) commanding playing by Jonathan Pryce, this between-wars biopic of English painter Dora Carrington and her love for gay Bloomsbury Group scribe Lytton Strachey fails to illuminate either the little-known title character or her life-consuming passion. British scripter-playwright Christopher Hampton’s helming debut is a wobbly affair that’s too dry by half and isn’t helped by a badly miscast Emma Thompson in an already underwritten role.
Enthusiasts of the period, and of Brit period pieces in general, may be drawn by the subject matter, but pic is unlikely to make many converts, at least in Anglophone territories where the script’s weaknesses will be most apparent.
It would be easy to attribute much of the film’s failure to grab the brass ring to Hampton’s behind-the-lens inexperience — from unsuitable choice of music (Michael Nyman) to a lack of any thoroughgoing camera style. But many of the pic’s weaknesses stem from the script, a department in which Hampton (“Dangerous Liaisons,””Mary Reilly”) has buckets of experience, from legit to TV to features.
The emotional distancing starts with the script’s construction — six chapters of varying length, each titled and dated, stretching from 1915 through 1932.
First, “Lytton & Carrington 1915” has Strachey (Pryce) visiting some friends in the country, eyeing some boys playing soccer in the garden, and finding out that one of them is actually tomboyish painter Dora Carrington (Thompson), who likes to be referred to only by her last name. Both outsiders in their own ways, the pair quickly bond.
In “Gertler 1916-18,” Carrington is pursued with eventual success by fellow painter Mark Gertler (Rufus Sewell). With Gertler history, further complications ensue in “Partridge 1918-21,” where handsome officer Ralph Partridge (Steven Waddington) moves in with the rurally cloistered duo and Strachey develops his own crush on the hunky hetero.
The sexuality becomes more daring — old partners go and new ones are introduced — with Partridge already playing the field, Carrington takes up with his best friend, Gerald Brenan (Samuel West). When Strachey becomes famous for his book “Eminent Victorians,” he buys a large country manse and gives free rein to his gay passions. Ultimately, it is only death that stops the music and ends the pairings.
Aside from the segmented nature of the script, the film as a whole plays in small scenes, with little or no connecting material. For those with an intimate knowledge of the people and the period, this may be OK, but for most, the pic will come over as footnotes to a lost book.
Yarn’s main thrust, of a “pure” (mostly unequal) love between an egotistical, waspish homosexual and a young woman awed by his intellect, is always clear enough. But it’s more taken for granted than made believable in either dramatic or cinematic terms. At no point does Hampton sweep the viewer up in the marginal world in which the characters move. At the end of the day, they emerge as rather trivial self-obsessives.
Script’s biggest mistake, however, is that it turns its title character into a supporting player. Miscast in a role that requires a far more nuanced actress, and saddled with a script that gives the devil all the best lines, Thompson fails to make Carrington either a particularly sympathetic character or one worthy of two hours of screen time.
Pryce, tossing off waspish remarks with the disdain of a wannabe Oscar Wilde (“If this is dying, I don’t think much of it”), simply acts Thompson (and everyone else) off the screen.
Though they’re only spear carriers to the main action, several of the supports make an impression. Waddington is fine as the straight-arrow Partridge, and West brings some presence to the sappy role of Brenan. Other English stalwarts, like Janet McTeer and Penelope Wilton, briefly register in cameos.
Pic’s look is often surprisingly plain, despite the presence of skilled Gallic lenser Denis Lenoir (“Monsieur Hire”). Though production notes make much of the movie’s gradation from a warm look to a colderone, this is not very evident in the final product, which features several over-ruddy exteriors and flatly lit interiors throughout the pic. Nyman’s music, drawn from his Third Quartet, ill fits both the period and mood. Penny Rose’s costumes are among the most natural and evocative things about the enterprise.