The movies love a good fop. Whether it’s Joel Grey in Cabaret or Robert Preston in Victor/Victoria, dandies make for fun watching, and quite often, the more flamboyant they are the better. But rare is the actor, and rarer still is the performance, that manages to translate the fop’s innate theatricality into movie size.
On stage, where there’s a back row to reach, size and grandeur have their purpose. At times, they’re even necessary. But on film, more specifically in close-ups, behavioral decadence can ring false, lending the character, and often the entire picture, a hollow, forced feel that undermines whatever truths are lodged behind the embellishments. There are of course exceptions in both directions. Nothing is more fun than Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and there is nothing deader than Dirk Bogarde in Victim. One is a roller coaster that never ends and the other is a hearse that never starts, but in between there is a whole uncharted gulf of purple personalities the movies don’t see everyday.
I bring all this up because just last week I had another look at Carrington, and I was rocked by Jonathan Pryce’s performance, both with respect to his balanced handling of the dandy-figure, and by the unbelievable degree to which he seemed to have thought out his work. As Lytton Strachey, the spindly, spidery, perpetually scowling malcontent of Bloomsbury, Pryce managed to evoke, down to the flick of a breadcrumb, the deepest scratches of his character’s inner life with the absolute smallest of gestures.
In his hands, a raised finger or languid beard-tug become, at the right moment, perfect verses of self-disclosure. Perfect, because as a proper British gentleman of the 1920s, there is only so much foppishness Strachey can permit himself, and Pryce, through some miracle of synecdoche, meets the challenge, disclosing all on a miniature scale true to the limitations of Strachey’s predicament. On several occasions, I could swear his knuckles were acting.
The actor’s movements are so intimate, so precise, and indeed so honest to Strachey’s circumstances, at times it seems that one has gone back in time to peer directly into his brain. Inside we see a mind of fierce intelligence; an amazing feat, considering that merely “acting smart” so often registers as pretentious. How does he do it? With the help of writer/director Christopher Hampton, who holds a magnifying glass to Pryce’s body. In close-up, the smoothing out of a crease in his pants, placed at the right time, screams louder than Daniel Day-Lewis at his loudest.
More than an act of non-fiction, of faithful replication, such physical acuity makes Pryce’s Strachey a work of great imagination. And within the weary confines of film foppery – and in a biopic no less, a genre so often damaged by strict adherence to biography – that’s quite something.