Shared lives love on the side

November 17, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

As an odd couple, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau had nothing on Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey. In fact, Sylvester Stallone and Susan Sontag would have nothing on them.

Carrington was a minor English painter, tomboy variety, a second-string Bloomsburyite, who, late in life, developed the sexual appetite of a French Legionnaire on leave in Marseille and took lovers in the dozens. But she never stopped loving her main guy, Lytton.

Strachey was a tart, wispy homosexual with a voice like a violin string exploding as a dentist's drill cut into it, the body language of a prima ballerina, a beard that looked like the roof of a Russian peasant's shack and a fondness for brown, droopy clothes. He wrote one brilliant book, "Eminent Victorians," published in 1918.

How to express the strangeness of the Strachey-Carrington relationship? How about: Lytton n' Dora sittin' in a tree, never ever k-i-s-s-i-n-g. Or put another way: Their love for each other was deep, genuine, perdurable and completely loyal. They shared everything, including the same husband and death.

The movie, written and directed by the vividly witty Christopher Hampton of "Dangerous Liaisons" fame, might be said to share Strachey's theories of biography. Single-handedly, almost, Lytton redefined the telling of life stories, by cutting through the endless data that was the habit at the time and reducing each figure to his or her essence. That's exactly what Hampton does, finding a line through these two very complex lives, reducing them almost to their best lines and their most intense passions.

When Lytton, then a third-rate book reviewer who still lived with his mum, first saw Carrington (as she preferred to be called) at Vanessa Bell's for a country weekend in 1915, he asked, "Who is that ravishing boy?" Imagine his disappointment when he found out she was a girl.

Still, he soldiered onward, at one time thrusting his lips against hers in an attempt to clumsily imitate heterosexual traditions. They were both horrified and, thank God, never tried that again.

The love bloomed if the sex never took root. They liked each other, they cared for each other, they needed each other. But as time went on, they needed more than companionship, and solved both their problems by moving in together, but pursuing sexual relationships with others.

The film, however, isn't really about sex, not hetero or homo. Rather, it's about love, for to Carrington and to Strachey a world without the other seems impossible to survive, and the movie's final weird act follows that impulse through to a bloody ending.

Jonathan Pryce, as Strachey, is amazing, though he wisely doesn't have a crack at the trilling Strachey voice. But he becomes the odd chap swaddled in tweed, beard and bony melancholy so totally the one word that never will enter your mind is "Infiniti." As for Emma Thompson as Carrington, somehow . . . not quite. She's too healthy. She could play Julie Andrews in a film bio, but with all that pulsating, anti-neurotic life force she never makes a bohemian.


Starring Jonathan Pryce and Emma Thompson

Directed by Christopher Hampton

Released by Gramercy

Rated R (profanity, sexual situations)


'It Takes Two'

** 1/2 Rated PG

"Isn't it cute, Mr. Grant?" Mary Richards once trilled to Lou Grant.

"Yeah," said Mr. Grant gruffly, "Cute. Cute as hell."

So here's "It Takes Two," also cute as hell. If you're a Mary you'll like it and if you're a Lou you'll hate it, and that's all there is to it.

As the screenplay has it, rich Alyssa (Ashley Olsen) is upset that her nice but rich dad (the bland Steve Guttenberg) is marrying a . . . uh, rhymes with rich, played by Jane Sibbett.

Across the lake at a camp for poor kids, identical stranger Amanda (Mary-Kate Olsen) is worried she'll be adopted by jerks and lose contact with her wonderful counselor Kirstie Alley.

The two cuties meet in the woods, discover a cute commonality of interest, change lives and set about to re-align Alley and

Guttenberg and ace out Sibbett.

The real discovery is Sibbett of "Friends (the whole movie is populated with TV people). She gives Clarise Kensington an edge of brittle, hysterical snootiness, like the Wicked Witch of the East after too much aerobics and not enough carbohydrates. She's a very funny comic villain.


*** Unrated

"Persuasion," which opens today at the Charles, is derived from Jane Austen's last novel. Director Roger Michell has taken great pains to fill it with what he perceives to be the emotional state of Austen as death approached: Regret of a dying virgin, unconsolable over lost opportunities.

Austen (and Michell) tell the story of Anne Elliot, persuaded by her father to give up a suitor, though she loved him and he loved her. Years later, father has squandered his fortunes and the suitor returns, a rich naval captain.

The father is played by Corin Redgrave as a foppish fool so trivial in his obsessions (physical beauty) that he ranks as one of the screen's great idiots.

Anne (Amanda Root) appears to have to pay a high price for her father's idiocy, as she pines after the handsome, prosperous Captain Wentworth and he cuts her dead. But, perhaps feeling optimistic as the end grew near, Austen permitted a happy ending.

Those with a serious Jane Austin habit will love it.--Root's performance is powerful, as is Ciarian Hinds' as Wentworth, and the movie communicates a strong sense of Austen's universe.

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