This is an extremely episodic film about the painter Carrington and her highly unconventional personal life. The film is mostly about her personal relationships and not really about her work so if you’re looking for a biography of a painter, look elsewhere. The film won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1995 but with 20+ years of distance, it is really, really hard to see why.
The film is notable, as far as I can, because of its depiction of a highly unusual relationship for WWI-era England, that between a gay man and a straight woman. To have such a relationship front and centre of an English period drama was undoubtedly unusual, if not out-and-out shocking, in 1995. That is both to the film’s credit and a discredit to the society that the film was made in.
But the film, as a biography, is not particularly great in my eyes. The highly episodic nature of the film feels both appropriate to biography and extremely inappropriate to character development. These people feel fully formed to me, from the start, and that is not factually accurate but it also feels dishonest. I’m not sure that’s the intent of the cast, I think that is just the way the film comes off, given how it is just a series of snapshots. And it’s quite a good cast, I just don’t know if they’re given the right material to work with. (The film was such a big deal at the time that both Thompson and Pryce won or were nominated for acting awards despite it being not their best work to my eyes.)
I am not trying to disparage the film. It’s funnier than I ever would have expected a British period film to be – they’re usually “stuffy” – and it’s very nice to look at. The cast is full of great British actors giving fine performances. But the film itself is highly flawed as a portrait of the title artist; so much is assumed in terms of audience knowledge – I spent a bit of time on wikipedia wanting to know more about the main characters’ work – and the nature of the film just doesn’t work for me.