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Priest of Love

Director: Christopher Miles
Cast: Ian McKellen, Janet Suzman

(US DVD: 21 Jun 2011)

Frieda Lawrence, a German aristocrat who married a British teacher, left her husband and children to elope with scandalous English novelist D.H. Lawrence. For the rest of his life to his death from tuberculosis, she traveled with him to various locations including Mexico, Italy, and the New Mexico home and bohemian colony of the extravagant Mabel Dodge Stern Luhan.


In his first major film role, Ian McKellen as Lawrence is notable for his pale white skin, his red hair, his clear eyes and his scowl. As Frieda, Janet Suzman is a hardbitten piece of work, all raspy voice, jutting lip and frizzy hair. Together, they look like they could drink anyone under the table, and they convey an intimate understanding under their prickly exteriors.


Arts patron Luhan is played with requisite glamour by Ava Gardner in her final film. This same historical figure was recently played by Tyne Daly in the TV movie Georgia O’Keeffe, another politely functional troubled-marriage-of-genius-artists thing. Luhan could be the subject of her own mini-series and probably should be if it could be done without just being a parade of facile name-dropping and star-strucking. The O’Keeffe project had the advantage of being filmed at the Luhan ranch, while the Lawrence film had to reconstruct it in Mexico.


Except for the Luhan section, Priest of Love travels to all the actual locations for a romantic biopic that skips through various moments in the Lawrences’ star-studded lives and finally settling into some interest as Lawrence writes and virtually self-publishes Lady Chatterley’s Lover and exhibits his paintings to more scandal and acclaim. This final third of the film is the most engaging as it slows down to observe a working household and the sources of Lawrence’s visual and verbal art, as well as the details of publishing (though not writing).


As an index of how this British film was well-reviewed in the US, Leonard Maltin’s rating is three stars. However, Maltin is rating a film 125 minutes long, and what we have here is Christopher Miles’ re-arranged and truncated 99-minute “director’s cut”. The recutting seems to have been in response to bad British reviews. The index here is Time Out Film Guide, which says “High in the running for the year’s dumbest art movie…with all the naive lyricism of an early Ken Russell biopic”.


If only! The obvious point of comparison is Russell’s Savage Messiah, which Time Out doesn’t much like either. Both center on the stormy relationship between artistic outcasts and social pariahs (with the woman in both cases a funny-accented foreigner) who are celebrated by a motley artsy crowd and condemned by stuffy upstanding stereotypes. Both films have swelling romantic music and lovely design, and both feature heroes whose tantrums cross into the tiresome.


As for contrasts, Russell’s film is more lively than restful. He also convinces us that his hero really works and that this flawed couple is more damaged than privileged. In fairness to Miles and writer Alan Plater, movies about authors are especially crippled by the difficulty of conveying such activity cinematically; for two great exceptions, check out Mishima and The Whole Wide World.


What’s been cut for this edition? There’s a selection of deleted scenes rendered incomprehensible by Miles’ yammering over the dialogue; why is there no clean option? This section doesn’t constitute all the deleted scenes, including two of the most important (see below), but the most essential scene here does two important things. First, it clarifies that Lawrence had a homosexual affair with a Cornish farmer; this is still strongly implied by the nude swimming sequence, but the sexual element is ambiguous and otherwise only hinted throughout by coy unconsummated glances.


Second and more shockingly, Lawrence responds to his wife’s teasing about it by beating her in a violent outburst—in front of guests. Miles says he deleted this because it shows too unpleasant a side of Lawrence too early. Heaven forfend his genius-hero be unlikeable! Without it, we’re left with a difficult man who’s sometimes cantankerous but whose fights with Frieda are never serious.


In McKellen’s interview, he singles out the shot in which his character’s shadow is projected on the wall with an erection (a prop, he admits regretfully) and avers it was probably the first mainstream movie to show such a thing. Fortunately, we see the clip while he’s speaking, and it’s the kind of image that surely stuck in the mind of everyone who saw the original version. It’s no longer in the film.


Also gone is the original ending, a bit of rich comic irony in which Lawrence’s ashes are forgotten in a train station. This is one of the few things the Time Out reviewer liked (“sublime silliness”), but Miles decided it was too slapstick and now substitutes an uninspired convention of hagiography. We see this clip in the making-of, which is a very good combination of contemporary behind-the-scenes material with new memories by Penelope Keith, who played a supporting role.


In other words, Miles deleted exactly those moments that Russell would have kept first. Perhaps he didn’t wish to be accused of Russell-ism. Ultimately, Miles errs in favor of the more traditional virtues of the politely romantic postcard-movie with a few awkward moments. I’m strongly tempted to prevent filmmakers, by force if necessary, from ever tinkering or tampering with their releases. If they must do so, I think it’s fair to require the original version—the one actually seen by moviegoers and reviewed by reviewers—to remain available for comparison.


Kino isn’t to blame for this omission. They have simply transferred the 2004 UK DVD of Miles’ director’s cut on the C’est La Vie label, so that this seriously altered film is now available in Region 1. Hurray! (There’s also a Blu-ray.) It’s ironic that curious readers have access to three distinct manuscripts of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, while curious viewers have access only to the more tastefully tailored incarnation of the film about writing something controversial.

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Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.


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