By Owen Gleiberman
Updated November 17, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

Emma Thompson wears her hair in a thick ruffled bob in Carrington, a tea-cozy import with an arresting kink at its center. Gazing cautiously from beneath all that hair, she confronts the world with a look of angelic rectitude. Is she turning into Julie Andrews? Thompson plays Dora Carrington, the British painter and bohemian of the early 1900s. At the dawn of World War I, she is introduced to Lytton Strachey (Jonathan Pryce), an aesthete and literary scholar 13 years her senior. Despite his awkward appearance — he’s gangly and frail, with the bushy-wushy beard of a diffident rabbi — the two are drawn into a love affair that lasts for the rest of their lives. It’s an affair of the spirit only, though. For Strachey is homosexual. He is also the kind of meticulously effete post-Victorian gentleman who, by dint of temperament and survival, keeps his heart in one box and his desires in another.

Over the next 17 years, Carrington (who prefers to be called by her last name) gets married and has affairs with numerous ardent suitors. Yet she always returns to her platonic soul mate, Strachey. Theirs, the movie suggests, is an affair unsullied by the sweat and ego of physical passion. Writer-director Christopher Hampton is out to celebrate a vision of higher love that is, at its very essence, puritanical. Yet he might have drawn us in had he succeeded in portraying the relationship between Carrington and Strachey as an exquisite meeting of sensibilities. What we see is something less.

As Strachey, Jonathan Pryce chews on his witticisms as if they were poisoned gumdrops. Waving his hands around like Chinese fans, he makes Strachey a creature too precious for the physical world, one who strikes sparks of wisdom from his detachment. For all his elegant bitchery, Strachey exudes a glow of sheer kindness; we can see why he’d be a charming fellow to be around. The film treats him, though, as if he were the second coming of Oscar Wilde. The way Pryce plays Strachey, he’s more like the second coming of Bruce Wayne’s butler. Are we to believe Dora Carrington would devote her entire life to Alfred?

Thompson, by now, has played one too many beaming saints. She never does bring Carrington’s soul into focus — the character is by turns tomboy, romantic, worrywart, and libertine — and so her reverence for Strachey comes off as a pious conceit rather than an eccentric, consuming passion. What the film is really saying is that Carrington’s feminist spirit overlaps with Strachey’s out-of-body refinement in a way that no ”normal” heterosexual union could match. That’s a very chichi idea, and by the end of Carrington what the film wants to pass off as a dangerous liaison looks more like the ultimate in safe sex.