(Christopher Hampton, UK/France, 1995)


I enjoy following the game of overrated and underrated that goes on among our film reviewers. I’m referring to how, if critics want to really champion a film they proudly call it underrated, and if they really want to trash a movie they call it overrated. I play this game quite a lot myself. Of course, these words overrated and underrated are rather loaded terms. Their usage tends to demonstrate, more than anything, the paranoia of most film reviewers with a hidden axe to grind. Film critics tend to be hyper-aware of each other’s opinions, and they often position themselves in relation to those opinions, even if they don’t say so openly.

This paranoia is not just an Australian thing, and it’s not just confined to film reviewing either. I think most arts criticism works like this. The literary critic Helen Daniel has often spoken about how, when an important new book comes out, the major book reviewers immediately start jostling for position, and try to suss out what other reviewers will say about the book, whether they’re going to come out for or against it. So, at the moment that they actually have to go into print, critics are often second-guessing each other’s opinions, playing a game of "positioning". It can be a tortured business, let me tell you.

In film circles, the game of overrated and underrated works like this. Say I decide that I really want to champion a certain new film, and I am convinced in advance that most other reviewers are not going to like it. Even if this film gets, on the whole, pretty positive notices, I am going to act aggrieved. I am going to come out and say this movie has been criminally underrated – essentially because it has not been unanimously embraced as the deathless masterpiece that I happen to think it is.

But, of course, the more that I say this film is underrated, and the more I champion it, the more I am likely to trigger the equal and opposite reaction. People who are tired of hearing me rave about this movie will start saying publicly that it is grossly overrated, because they want to smash this film’s supposedly inflated reputation.

All these shenanigans, as you might imagine, lead to a quite distorted situation. The stock of certain films is talked up wildly, or talked down ungenerously – and discerning the actual quality and substance of the films in question tends to disappear amid all the polemics. This whole game is especially evident in the case of local films like Bad Boy Bubby (Rolf de Heer [1993]), or films we like to claim as our own, such as The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993). To some extent, these overrating and underrating distortions tend to wash out with the passage of time. Sometimes it hardly takes any time at all. I am forever amused by the way that some films which are described as masterpieces in February mysteriously disappear without a trace ten months later, when these same reviewers put their ten-best-of-the-year lists together. Let’s face it: the pleasures that some films offer are ephemeral. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s a fact. So overrated films sometimes find their just level of praise pretty quickly.

Underrated films have a tougher, longer job finding legitimacy. Critics generally hate to admit that their first, gut impression of a film was wrong, or misjudged. But if a film that was almost universally panned by mainstream reviewers hangs around long enough, if it picks up a cult following, if it gets steadily written about in magazines and books, if it gets some significant screenings then, just maybe, critics might silently give it a nod of approval several years down the line. That’s what happened with David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1978), for instance, or many Brian De Palma‘s films, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), or even Andrei Tarkovsky’s films.

Now that I’ve laid all this on the table, I want say, in all calmness, that I have discovered the most overrated film of 1995. And I say this with no axe to grind, with no other film reviewer in mind whose views I want to mock, dethrone or expose. The film is Carrington. I don’t say this is a bad movie. I was reasonably captivated by it – it’s fascinating in a grim, grey, masochistic kind of way. But I can’t for the life of me see what others have found to praise so highly in it. It is, on many levels, an artless, meandering film, clearly the work of a first-time director who has a long way to go before reaching mastery or even facility. I can only comprehend the international success of this movie if I squint my eyes, as it were, and try to see it as a film that sends out the right signals, pushes the right buttons, for viewers across a whole range of audiences. The film is perhaps so vague and shapeless, so full of fuzzy edges, that people can take it however they like, project onto it whatever they please. In the movie trade, that degree of fuzziness can provide an unlikely recipe for market success.

Perhaps some people take Carrington as a lush historical drama like a Merchant Ivory film. Others might take it as a film about the problems of art and artists. Others may see in it a reflection of our own, modern problems concerning sex and gender and relationships. A good number of folks in the audience I saw it with obviously took it as a tear-jerking love story in the vein of The Bridges of Madison County (Clint Eastwood, 1995), even, incredibly enough, a heartwarming love story – although I went out of it with a real chill. And if you now fuzzily superimpose all these potential Carringtons on top of each other, maybe you can convince yourself that this is a rich movie, a great movie, maybe even a classic or a masterpiece. That’s what most reviewers have been rushing to say, at any rate.

But it is in many respects a clumsy and uncertain film. It’s the directorial debut of Christopher Hampton, who wrote the admirable script for Stephen Frears’ film of Dangerous Liaisons (1988). Hampton based this script on the true life story of the painter Dora Carrington (Emma Thompson). She had an unconventional relationship, over many years, with the gay writer Lytton Strachey (Jonathan Pryce). Their intimate arrangement drew in other parties, men and women, in a relatively open and bisexual manner. Tricky problems of love and erotic satisfaction are paramount in the film. But Hampton also pays due attention to more mundane matters like money and travel, and he also conveys a less histrionic level of simple affection and tenderness flowing between this web of complex characters.

What is meant to be the style or tone of this film? I have heard some people claim that Hampton’s intentions are experimental and modernist, that he wants to turn upside down the conventions of the pretty historical biopic. I dimly see the evidence for this claim in the film – but only dimly. If this is Hampton’s intention, he lacked either the skill, or the courage, to follow it through to the end. But there are odd things in the film, like the strange rhythm of its often extremely short scenes. Or the way Hampton disorientingly breaks into one scene with a bit of dialogue from the preceding or following scene. Or the heavily self-referential gestures, such as when we get a rather silly fight scene in the street, and then hear Strachey say over the top: "anything more cinematographic could scarcely be imagined".

There are times when these modern, self-conscious touches, as I’m taking them, actually seem to point to what’s wrong or weak in the film itself. For instance, one chap defines another as someone who makes literary or theatrical characters out of people, fixing them with an identity and ascribing opinions to them which he can then argue with. The problem is, Hampton has constructed his own characters in exactly that kind of jazzily superficial way. They are cleanly delineated neurotic bundles carrying bags of bon mots, just like the characters in Alan Rudolph’s film about Dorothy Parker, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), which Carrington reminded me of at every turn.

The other stridently odd and modernist thing about this film is of course Michael Nyman’s musical score. I have to say that I find Nyman a supremely perverse composer for films. In Peter Greenaway’s movies Nyman’s music, with its rigid formalism, makes perfect sense. It starts and ends exactly when the shot or scene starts and ends. It is metronomic, clockwork, cerebral music which smilingly pastiches every damn thing under the sun, from classical masters like Purcell to popular idioms.

I don’t actually dislike Nyman’s music. It springs from a tradition, the minimalism of Philip Glass and others, that I greatly admire. But when you take Nyman’s music out of Greenaway’s films and plop it down in The Piano, Monsieur Hire (Patrice Leconte, 1989) or Carrington, it becomes monumentally strange. And it’s strange for two reasons: firstly, Nyman sticks to writing the same rigid, stop-start themes, and secondly, he obviously insists on taking all the incidental music, the music inside the story that comes out of radios or is heard in salons, and he gives this music the grand Nyman once-over, so that it all sounds like a bunch of late twentieth century avant-garde pieces. Holly Hunter’s keyboard performances in The Piano were a bit like this, for instance. It’s also often rather raggedly played, a fact which arises (as Nyman has avowed) from the hasty process, from composition to rehearsal to recording in a few takes.

The other really striking thing about Nyman’s music is its relation to emotion. He refuses to write overtly emotive music, and if there are trills and flourishes that we identify as traditionally emotive, they are again like ironic musical jokes. Now I’m not saying that Nyman’s music can’t have an emotional effect. But this emotion arises from a terse, even stiff, form of understatement. Nyman doesn’t write sentimental music – and I’m sure that’s why Hampton chose him, because his principal male subject, Strachey, is not a sentimental or overtly emotional man either. Strachey is in fact a classic hero of homosexual art and fiction: he’s a man whose feelings run deep, but rarely break through his perfectly managed social mask. There is a pathos attached to this kind of hero, but again, it’s a terse kind of pathos, which is certainly an interesting spectacle to behold.

But hang on. Isn’t Dora meant to be the central focus of this story which bears her name? Here for me is where the film starts to unravel. It’s been suggested to me that films based on true-life stories – particularly if they are chronicles covering many years and decades like this one – are prey to a particularly intense unwieldiness and shapelessness. Some true-life films, like Paul Schrader’s remarkable Patty Hearst (1988), embrace this problem and deliver a chaotic stream of contradictory impressions and interpretations in relation to what may have really gone on. But Carrington, despite its occasional pretensions, is a more conventional and classical drama. And it strains to find a theme, an idea, a point that will cohere this great spread of years, characters, events and relationships.

Hampton keeps trying various themes out for a stretch of twenty minutes or so, and then discarding them. Early on, it’s a fascinating story of artists and their ethical politics, as they variously position themselves in relation to the war that’s going on across the sea. But then that idea disappears. Intermittently it’s a story like Jean Eustache‘s classic The Mother and The Whore (1973), about the problems of open, bohemian relationships: the bothersome logistical problems of bed-sharing as much as the intricate emotional problems of deceit, possessiveness, jealousy and so on. But that theme comes and goes and never really takes hold either. At the very start and end, the film promises to be a film about artistic careers, especially the suppressed artistic career of a woman who chose in her lifetime not be publicly recognised, because of her attachment to this man. But the film pays virtually no attention, finally, to the creative processes of either Dora’s painting, or Lytton’s writing. Their art is almost an afterthought, a postscript in this movie.

The film’s central relationship is of course, the one between Carrington and Strachey. Here we need to consider an interesting omission on the film’s part. I heard an interesting talk by Barbara Creed at Writer’s Week in Melbourne in 1995; she pointed out that, in life, Dora Carrington was openly bisexual, and had various passionate affairs with women, affairs that she celebrated. There is no trace of this in Hampton’s film. Now, as a principle, I believe we should allow filmmakers the license to include or exclude whatever they please from their real-life source material. After all, a fiction film is not a documentary. But the omission is telling, and it’s not hard, finally, to see why Hampton left it out.

Carrington is a particular and very modern kind of love story. It’s about the unrequited love suffered by a ‘fag hag’. Hampton spares no opportunity to show us Dora weeping alone, or gazing longingly at Lytton with his boys, or reeling in shock when she hears that he said that women’s bodies are fundamentally disgusting to him.

In a totally bizarre moment of fantasy wish-fulfilment, Hampton has Strachey inadvertently confess to Dora, in the midst of a sick-bed delirium, that he always loved her and in fact wished he had married her. It’s at this point that the supposedly terse, understated pathos that I mentioned before well and truly disappears from the film. And Hampton’s last minute attempt at including a kind of Dorothy Parker-ish black comedy of despair also sits weirdly amidst the genteel soap opera.

That’s why I described watching the film as a masochistic experience: it makes you squirm as you behold this impossible love that can never be. Of course, such masochistic plots are common to romantic soap operas, like for instance The Bridges of Madison County. But when my fellow reviewers fall over themselves (for a couple of weeks, at least) to call Carrington a classic and a masterpiece, I don’t think the honest assessment of this film as agonised bisexual soap opera is quite what they have in mind.

MORE Hampton: The Secret Agent

© Adrian Martin November 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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