The British writer D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) produced a varied and now well-regarded body of literary work, but he’s still best remembered for those titles that vexed the censors and moral guardians of the UK. Indeed, the sexual shenanigans found in books such as The Rainbow (1915) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) resulted in Lawrence being branded as a pornographer by some, and the books becoming the subjects of drawn out obscenity trials.
In 1969 the British filmmaker Ken Russell (1927-2011) brought an adaptation of The Rainbow‘s sequel, Women in Love (1920), to the big screen. Set in an English mining town just after World War I, the film details the trials and tribulations that unfold when two sisters court love affairs with two best friends. Generally regarded as Russell’s first feature film of major importance, Women in Love‘s frankly depicted sexual content set the director on a course that would see him become the most eminent enfant terrible of the British film industry. Indeed, Russell would soon find himself fighting his own battles with the UK’s censors and moral guardians and by the end of the ’70s he had garnered a reputation for producing controversial work that was arguably as big as Lawrence’s.
The story begins when Ursula (Jennie Linden) and Gudrun Brangwen (Glenda Jackson) idly set out to observe a high society wedding at their local church. Both women are schoolteachers, though Gudrun projects her talents beyond the classroom and sees herself as an artist. Watching from a distance, Gudrun becomes smitten with the bride’s brother, Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed), while Ursula takes a fancy to his best friend, Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates). A number of subsequent social events bring the foursome together and their relationships with each other slowly develop. Alas, the course of true love doesn’t run too smoothly in this particular tale, though that comes as no surprise given the awkward, selfish and volatile personalities that Lawrence allotted to his four main characters.
The film’s protagonists are intriguing individuals, but there’s very little to like about them. Crich is a bullheaded and insensitive capitalist-aristocrat who oversees the local coal mine with a rod of iron. He likes to push his weight around, is cruel to animals, and despises his workforce. Crich is quick to spot and fire those elderly workers who can no longer operate at full capacity. He’s not sure what love is and is initially afraid to openly reveal his feelings to a member of the opposite sex.
Birkin is a conceited and slightly effete intellectual bore. He’s an inspector of schools who spends his time philosophizing about the true nature of love and sexual relationships. An existentialist who possesses an elitist outlook, Birkin develops and surreptitiously promotes a libertine-like personal manifesto that embraces communal living and bisexuality while eschewing monogamy.
Gudrun has an open curiosity about sex and she’s also obsessed with testing the power and influence that her looks and her gender might afford her. She finds pleasure in taking to the town’s rougher backstreets late at night to rub shoulders with and spitefully annoy prostitutes who are plying their trade, or to voyeuristically wander amongst couples that are indulging in heavy petting in shadowy locations. On such nighttime jaunts, Gudrun delights in teasing drunken workmen with flirtatious sexual come-ons that she has no intention of fulfilling. When the naturally feisty, sarcastic and cynical Gudrun embarks on an affair with Crich, she appears to be torn between a desire to be told that she is loved and a desire to willfully break any man who might actually deign to say those words to her.
Of the four, Ursula possesses the most straightforward and traditional attitudes towards relationships and sex but her needy, insecure and emotional nature and her tendency to throw melodramatic hissy fits make her a slightly unstable individual.
Women in Love‘s story is constructed in a fairly idiosyncratic way. Rather than employing an organically evolving classical narrative structure, Russell presents what plays like a series of standalone and, at times, randomly selected episodes from the foursome’s ongoing lives together. Russell tends to eschew the use of the kind of transitional editing effects that traditionally signal that time has elapsed between two scenes. Thus, whenever the action cuts to a new scene, we’re never quite sure whether an hour, a day, a week or a month has passed by. But this elliptical approach isn’t really problematic. In this film we’re able to measure the passing of time by noting the increasing emotional and physical intensity of the foursome’s interactions.
In spite of its somewhat obnoxious characters and episodic narrative structure, Women in Love works incredibly well because its four main strengths all come together with a remarkable sense of synergy. Firstly, the film’s acting is top notch. As with The Devils (1971) and Tommy (1975), Russell draws a fantastic performance out of Oliver Reed, who is at his most commanding and physically imposing best here.
Alan Bates is equally good, offsetting Birkin’s intellectual loquaciousness against Crich’s domineering brawn in a wholly effective way. Glenda Jackson and Jennie Linden both play off of their respective male counterparts with great skill and the four characters’ foibles provoke some intense exchanges of clever and well-written dialogue. Jackson’s role was the more demanding of the two female characters, given Gudrun’s more complex and active nature, and she subsequently won an Oscar for her efforts.
The film’s second strength relates to its quite superb mise-en-scène. The set and costume design work is second to none, prompting a feeling of both apparent historical authenticity and thoroughly pleasing stylistic excess. Added to this is some quite breathtaking location work shot amidst completely convincing locales.
Funnily enough, the modish ’20s fashions sported by Ursula and Gudrun had enjoyed a revival in the UK’s countercultural circles during the late ’60s and this serves to give parts of the film a contemporary aesthetic, too. For example, when the sisters are seen alone in the churchyard at the start of the film they could just as easily be two British hippy chicks from 1969 discussing their relationship problems. The film’s focus on open sexual relations and empowered women also serves to capture the zeitgeist of 1969.
Linked closely to the film’s set designs and location choices is its third strength: its cinematography and blocking. With Women in Love Russell and cinematographer Billy Williams present a succession of well thought out shots that are framed, composed and angled to perfection. Hand held cameras are also used to great effect. A lot of meticulous planning clearly went into the construction of this film.
There’s even room for some slightly more experimental sequences here, too. For example, the infamous bout of nude wrestling that Crich and Birkin undertake features some interesting jump cuts. Elsewhere a stylized nude prance through woodland by Birkin and Ursula is presented in slow motion and soft focus, having been shot by a camera that was laid on its left side. As such, the pair are presented running up the frame rather than across it.
Finally, Georges Delerue’s superb music serves to perfectly underscore and act as a bridge that ties Russell and Williams’ masterful and evocative images together. There’s a suitably rustic feel to Delerue’s cues during the film’s outdoors and woodlands-set scenes. Delerue also throws period songs such as ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ and ‘Oh, You Beautiful Doll’ into the mix to good effect.
The picture and sound quality of this new restoration of Women in Love by the BFI is superb. The film’s colors come through particularly well. In a number of scenes Russell uses color to distinguish the upwardly mobile Brangwen sisters from the working class masses that they move amongst. Dressed in their modish finery, the sisters invariably appear as isolated blots of near-psychedelic color set amongst the crowds of homogenous-looking, grey clothed and coal dust-covered proletariat workers.
This BFI release also comes loaded with informative extra features: a booklet, audio commentaries by Ken Russell and writer/producer Larry Kramer, an in depth interview with cinematographer Billy Williams, a Glenda Jackson interview plus a contemporaneous documentary that profiles the actress, an image gallery and Second Best (1972), which is a short film adaptation of a D. H. Lawrence story by director Stephen Dartnell, which also stars Alan Bates.