Directed by Christopher Hampton

"How do you spell ‘intangible’?" Dora Carrington asks of Lytton Strachey midway through this film as she sits writing at her desk. How do you spell intangible, indeed. Carrington tells the story of people who tried, in their own way, and at a time when society did not encourage such experiments, to acknowledge openly what most of us are aware of but still reluctant to discuss: that a great many differences exist between love and desire.

1915. A World War rages off stage, but the world of the artists and writers of bohemian London carries on its merry way, rejecting Victorian propriety in living, pomposity in politics and prettiness in the arts. It is a sharp winter’s afternoon when writer Lytton Strachey (Jonathan Pryce: Brazil, those Infiniti car commercials) - a tall, thin, bearded bachelor, apparently a committed gay - makes the journey from this world to that of Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell (Janet McTeer) and her husband Clive (Richard Clifford) on the south coast of England.

It is twilight by the time he sweeps into their elegant Georgian sitting-room; a moment out of time and place and convention when - gazing from a window into the garden beyond - he is transfixed by a boyish, androgynous figure whose golden bobbed hair catches firelights in the dying rays of the lowering sun; a child-like figure with huge cornflower blue eyes, pale skin, and burnished cheeks: a figure he takes to be a beautiful young man; a figure he comes to know as the wild young painter Dora Carrington (Emma Thompson). As they walk along the cliff-tops of the south coast, they hear the rumble of guns in France and to that music form a bond of deep affection that will mark their lives for the next seventeen years.

While Lytton flirts with young men, Carrington resists all the burning young lovers who pursue. Mark Gertler (Rufus Sewell), a fellow painter, is driven to distraction by her refusal and tries to force the issue. When Lytton appears before a conscription tribunal to explain his refusal to go to war, Carrington’s admiration for this unusual man is so clear that Gertler enlists his help in "educating" her. Lytton and Carrington spend a weekend at Lady Ottoline Morrell’s (Penelope Wilton) country house but, far from thoughts of Gertler, Carrington declares her deepening love for Lytton. Ottoline and Phillip Morrell (Peter Blythe) persist in trying to persuade her to give in to Gertler but Lytton confounds their efforts and takes Carrington to Wales, where they share mutual affection and a bed. The remorseless Gertler also takes her away for a weekend in the country, with less than enjoyable results. In the end, she tells him she loves Lytton.

Lytton and Carrington begin an idyllic, passionate relationship; they rent a millhouse together, to write and paint; they survive Gertler’s wild assault on Lytton when he finds out; they definitively break all the taboos of the old England in their desire to live freely and honestly.

Another young man, Ralph Partridge (Steven Waddington) appears on the scene at Carrington’s invitation. Lytton falls in love with him, and threatens to break up their odd menage a trois if Partridge goes to live in London. Carrington can’t bear to lose Lytton, and agrees to marry Partridge to keep him and herself in Lytton’s world. When she and Ralph go to Venice on their honeymoon, Lytton is there to greet them both.

Enter also Gerald Brenan (Samuel West), Partridge’s best friend, back from his travels in Spain. A poetic figure, he soon becomes Carrington’s lover, encouraged by Lytton who sees no harm and Ralph’s own infidelities. Ralph and Gerald confront each other, but life goes on, as does the affair. Carrington, however, can still take no man seriously except Lytton.

1920s. Lytton becomes very famous, or infamous, on publication of his book, "Eminent Victorians," buys a bigger house in the country and pursues more young men, particularly the beguilingly youthful Roger Senhouse (Sebastian Harcombe). Ralph too falls in love, with a sweet young woman, Frances (Alex Kingston). Alienated by the emotional changes thrust upon her, Carrington nevertheless finds a balance in her life; she paints, looks after Lytton and finds sexual solace where she may including the arms of the handsome yachtsman Beacus Penrose (Jeremy Northam).

Carrington is one of the great epic romances, but a romance where sexual congress between the two who are passionately in love with each other has nothing whatever to do with the deep wells of feeling they share with each other. Like The Unbearable Lightness Of Being and Out of Africa, Carrington is a film that dares to examine the difference between desire and love, and looks at an adult subject in an adult way. As opposed to Hollywood’s usual matter-of-fact insistence that love is a game with a win/lose dialectic simplistically painted in broad stokes, Carrington traces, rather, the fact that love is indeed a mystery which must be acknowledged and honored for the way that it can bring out the best in both people rather than a way of keeping emotional score.

Emma Thompson’s performance is of the highest caliber, as usual, as she’s able to bring out the awkward, self-effacing aspects of Dora Carrington all the way down to the pigeon-toed stance the way the real life Carrington apparently stood. With all the impatience of a little girl who wishes that one day she’ll wake up and finally find herself to be a sophisticated woman, she worships Lytton for his "cold and wise" attitude, his ability to see straight through the conventions of the time, and adopts him as her emotional mentor.

She’s an artist whom everyone in the Bloomsbury set knew, even though she never really considered herself a part of the circle, unlike Lytton, whom everyone swarmed around for his scorched earth policy of anti-Victorian insights and rapier wit. Carrington, it would appear, spent her whole life trying to figure herself out, like any true artist, and Thompson very ably transmits that lost quality throughout the film: even as she gains her confidence socially, sexually and artistically, the motivations of her heart she would never let be pressured, no matter how much physical affection and attention she needed. Which I think is an important distinction to make. There’s a subtle, yet significant difference between "having sex" and "having a warm body next to yours," a bed buddy. So many women believe that the only way men want to appreciate their intimate worth is through their sexuality rather than their tenderness, which Carrington becomes all too consciously aware of, and one of the reasons why she is so drawn to the homosexual Lytton is not simply because he isn’t a testosterone threat, but because his passive strength and appreciation of emotional fragility is so antithetical to traditional masculinity that she finds it very easy to forge a bond with someone who feels like a woman yet still thinks like a man.

A virgin many years past the point of reason, it is as if Carrington bought in to the sexual revolution of the flapper era between the world wars and the way it tried to repeal the oppressiveness of Victorian morals, learning how to cultivate and appreciate the sensual needs of the body, but deep down realized that a healthy, vigorous sex life with a plethora of partners does not necessarily mean more love, but simply more sex. As Carrington points out in the film, with Lytton she was able to be herself in all her confusion and joy, and without the obligatory pressures of regular sexual performance was able to find in Lytton the only person she ever really felt emotionally comfortable with. Echoing that great line of TS Eliot’s in Four Quartets, of a "love beyond desire."

Jonathan Pryce, as Lytton Strachey, has the honor of portraying one of the best screen roles of all-time. Like Rex Harrison’s Henry Higgins, or Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles, his performance as Lytton is so fully realized that his character becomes unprecedented. Incorporating the attitude of, say, a bearded Oscar Wilde, Pryce’s Lytton takes no prisoners and is disgusted by what he sees around him: the behaviour of the upper classes he finds himself eventually skirting is embarrassingly inexcusable to his ethically conscientious grounding. English boys are dying, he scowls, for their right to shamelessly frolic on the lawns of garden parties.

Since the movie takes place during World War I and the years immediately after, a lot of the dramatic tension comes from the fact that although sexual politics were not nearly as strategic as they are now, there still existed a code of honor and respect society harboured then which was suddenly giving way to a reassessment of emotional and sexual strategies, but was not about to simply do away with them willy- nilly.

When Lytton moves in with Carrington they both want commitment (with a small c), but also personal freedom. This ambiguity toward each other is parallel to their ambiguity toward the concept of fame, which they both courted in a very teasing way, but soon grew to realize that there is a lot more to be said for secure domesticity (no matter how loosely defined) than their behaviorally adventurous artistic peers. Because Carrington is intelligently written, directed, and acted, however, we do not see the behavior of each of them as simply willful and spoiled, but as part of the contradictions they need to stay individuals in a culture, and at a time, where the conventional notions of love and sex were strictly regimented. Jonathan Pryce plays Lytton with a sort of detachment that is supposed to come from the character’s distaste for commitment. He has a lean, intellectual look, and is not a voluptuary. And Carrington’s attempt to reconcile her love with Lytton’s detachment is probably the heart of the movie.

Carrington is a gorgeous movie to look at, beautifully filmed and taking full advantage of the English countryside. But what’s most surprising about this epic romance is that given the amount of territory it traverses (seventeen years) at an almost leisurely pace, it clocks in at only a hair over two hours, but when those two hours are over, you certainly feel as if you’ve been somewhere, seen something, been privy to so many more truths and realizations than you’ll see in any other standard film about a romance. What we have here is a paradox: an old-fashioned story about an avant-garde arrangement. An intelligent, thoughtful love story, told with enough care and attention that we really get involved in the passions between the characters, not the algebra surrounding them.

When I saw this film for the first time I was emotionally devastated when I walked out. Not in a depressing way, mind you, even though the end of the film, no matter how somber it appears is really not altogether that unexpected. This film has no formulaic way of trying to push your buttons, it simply takes the grist of history and shows you, in all it’s very accurate messy detail, just what the difference is between love and sex. The film stirred me so much that I wanted to see it again, because I wasn’t sure if I had inadvertently fallen for the "soap opera qualities" (as I called them, trying desperately to remain critically objective) of the film.

After seeing it a second time I had the exact same reactions as I had the first time, and began marveling at practically everything in the film: the acting, the dialogue, the photography, the sets, the music, the editing. I decided to see it a third time, and it still holds the same effect on me. What Christopher Hampton has presented in his first time in the director’s seat is an absolutely beautiful creation. All three times I’ve seen this film tears welled up in my eyes, and I don’t cry easily. Especially at films. Perhaps the reason this film is so successful is because it has a very gentle way of demonstrating what Love is: that although it may encompass sex and romance and obligation and self-sacrifice, that it still goes hurtling far beyond, elusively. The fact that all the roles in this film were actual people rather than just characters underlines the fact that no matter what the consequences or questionably moral and ethical arrangements these people go through (if one chooses to bring that much judgmental sexually politically correct baggage to the film) the day and age this film is set in is not too dissimilar from our own, ensconced as we are in the new behavioral Dark Ages, still reeling from the havoc wrought by militant feminists and p.c. stormtroopers trying to thwart the inherently natural roles of the mating ritual. What Mr. Hampton has created is a film that has taken the standard look of a Merchant-Ivory film ("English picnic movies," as Papa Villone calls them), with their emotionally dry approach to natural human relations, and has juiced it up with some of the sharpest and wittiest dialogue you’ll hear all year. Classic lines like "Semen: What is it about that white secretion that turns down the corners of an Englishman’s mouth?" and "But he’s a disgusting pervert!" "You always have to put up with something."

This film is flawless. It is a rare occurrence when every aspect of a film is integrated so well as to fully realize it’s purpose (something Claude Lelouch’s new adaptation of Les Miserables is also able to do) and Carrington succeeds perfectly.