Portrait of Another Artist: Channeling Carrington in Hampton’s CARRINGTON
12 August 2012
Dora Carrington, an English painter of the early 20th century, lived a rather unusual lifestyle; however, in fairness, amid the group of people she mingled with (most notably the Bloomsbury group), her actions and ideals were oddly normal (or odd yet accepted as normal). Yet, to a film audience watching a movie about the painter’s life, Carrington’s eccentricities make her an atypical protagonist; repressed sexuality and complicated sexual experiences, androgynous appearance, devotion to Lytton Strachey are all parts of what makes Carrington an anti-hero from a contemporary vantage point. Nevertheless, filmmaker Christopher Hampton, who wrote the screenplay and directed Carrington in 1995, took on the challenge of translating a significant portion of this artist’s life into a major motion picture.
In summation, Carrington follows the artist’s life beginning from the time she fell in love with homosexual writer Lytton Strachey (Jonathan Pryce). After a rocky start to their star-crossed relationship, Carrington (Emma Thompson) and Strachey began a life-long companionship, one that was never sexual, but did have an unmistakable romance to it. As Carrington explores her own sexuality with the other men in her life, Strachey remains the only man she shows unyielding devotion toward, going so far as to abort another man’s child, claiming if she were ever to have a child it must be Strachey’s. Carrington’s love for Strachey continually jeopardizes her relationships with the other men in her life, and when Strachey dies at Ham Spray (the home they shared in England), Carrington commits suicide.
Sure, because Carrington is a commercially released film, Carrington’s love-life is a bit steamier than she may remember it, and the gruesome realities of her suicide are cleverly edited out, but there are a few moments in the film when Carrington’s essence comes through; unsurprisingly, many of those moments are dialogue-free, ambiguous shots and sequences which ask viewers to look closely at what is presented to them and, in true modernist fashion, arrange the pieces of a the Carrington puzzle together to create their own understanding of this woman. For example, there are several silent moments in the film when Carrington observes people through windows, a significant motif in the film. Carrington watches Strachey with his new lover, Roger, through a window; seeing Roger wipe something from Strachey beard entrances Carrington and witnessing this causally intimate moment between the two clearly touches her. This moment is expanded upon in a later scene which may be a crux of Hampton’s film.
In a dialogue-free scene toward the film’s conclusion, Hampton allows Carrington’s essence through to contemporary film audiences. The scene opens up with Carrington and Strachey standing outside Ham Spray one night. Strachey retires inside and Carrington, wrapped in a blanket, stays outside the house and seats herself atop a tree stump. She begins to peer through the first floor of the house, which is all aglow with light; she sees Strachey and his young lover, as well as Ralph (Steven Waddington) and Frances (Alex Kingston), and her current lover, Beacus (Jeremy Northam). Slowly but surely, all these tenants turn off the lights in their respective rooms and head upstairs for bed. For a moment the house is dark, until the tenants start reaching the second floor and the lights emerge once more. Strachey and Roger go to their bedroom, turn on their light, and share a kiss in front of the window. Ralph and Frances talk and exchange smiles while changing into their bedclothes and pull their window’s curtain. Beacus goes to his bedroom window and stares out, perhaps at Carrington, before finally retreating to bed. The camera, which has been tracking across the house to show all inside and periodically cutting to close-ups of Carrington, slowly zooms out to show Carrington sitting on the tree stump watching the house’s lovers. All the lights in the rooms remain on and the shot fades to black.
This scene is, perhaps, the closest the filmmaker gets to revealing, even channeling, Carrington for his audience. First, Carrington is an outsider, and this scene captures that. Literally, she is outside the house and has removed herself from the others. But, metaphorically, Carrington is not like other people; she does not see the world the way others do, so she distances herself from society, from people, and functions primarily on her own. Adding to that, Carrington is the artist and the people and places around her are her art. Eventually these people and places become her work, so she naturally steps back from them and observes their beauty, takes it in, and captures it in her own way. These sentiments are easily found in this scene.
This scene also attempts to discover Carrington’s complicated emotional language and her resistance to physicality. There is not much sullen or depressed in her demeanor during this scene, even though this is a somber moment. Carrington watches, stares even, at each person, seeing how much love is present between the two couples inside. Outside, alone in the night, Carrington sits, wrapped up tightly in a warm blanket, watching love—entirely un-voyeuristic—from one end of the house to the other. Seeing those she loves in love appears to satisfy her in a way physical love does not. Yet, seeing this also comes with somewhat of a sting, as love, to the lovers surrounding Carrington, is directly connected to the physical. Love for Carrington is not physical; Carrington is not a physical individual. As Beacus, her current lover, looks out the window, perhaps at her, Carrington avoids his gaze, not wanting to come into the house herself and be physical.
Moreover, the film’s original score, arranged by Michael Nyman, gets highlighted in this scene. During this two-and-a-half minute scene the score is its most dramatic. Pulling of the strong emotions Carrington is obviously feeling in this scene, the score heightens the moment’s significance.
In all, Carrington is a complicated woman and translating her complexities to a contemporary film audience is a challenge. She is so different than from the norm, which is fascinating, but also, at times, undecipherable. These silent moments and scenes, most notable Carrington’s midnight observation of the Ham Spray, are what work best in Hampton’s film because they give audiences the chance to make sense of Carrington for themselves. And with a woman this unusual, dialogue and narration do not seem to be adequate conveyors of her essence.