Finally — a satisfying home video edition of Ken Russell’s absorbing, argument-starting classic, in which D. H. Lawrence’s quartet of bohemians attempt to live out their progressive theories about love and sex. The intellectual arguments may be cold but the characters are warm and vivid. Exceptional performing from all — Alan Bates, Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed and Jennie Linden, and outstanding cinematography from Billy Williams.
Women in Love
The Criterion Collection 916
1969 / Color / 1:75 widescreen / 131 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date March 27, 2018 / 39.95
Starring: Sir Alan Bates, Oliver Reed, Glenda Jackson, Jennie Linden, Eleanor Bron, Alan Webb, Catherine Willmer, Vladek Sheybal.
Cinematography: Billy Williams
Film Editor: Michael Bradsell
Original Music: Georges Delerue
Written by Larry Kramer
Produced by Larry Kramer, Martin Rosen
Directed by Ken Russell
In college, this one was guaranteed to keep couples up all night, debating the merits of each character’s notion of what constitutes a good relationship. What do women really want? What do men want? And how ruthlessly selfish can love rightly be?
The critical jury on director Ken Russell is still out, with the wilder extremes of his filmography pitched to push him toward the fringe, highly regarded but locked out of the pantheon. But forget the critics, as this show is a great example of a cultured artist going wild with his art. Russell indeed made pictures that can be difficult to watch. His near-psychedelic music bios are alternately praised and slammed, and some of his best work falls into the ‘low’ genres — the spy spectacular and the horror film. Russell is undaunted by sex and nudity, and loves a good wallow in creative blasphemy. Sometimes his hand is heavy but he’s never for a moment dull. To date his most highly regarded feature is still his early picture Women in Love, a sensationally tactile and visually ‘felt’ adaptation of D.H. Lawrence. A rebel against bourgeois conventions, Lawrence necessarily made his name as a writer of banned ‘dirty’ books. Ken Russell doesn’t just visit Women in Love, he tries to make his characters embody it.
I don’t know to what extent Lawrence’s philosophy is seriously regarded today. As actress Glenda Jackson says in an old interview, she didn’t buy into any of it personally but was entirely absorbed by the richness of the characters Lawrence created. The fairly cold, intellectual arguments put forward in the drama are easy to tear down. Lawrence’s main spokesman is an entitled elitist whose philosophic pursuit of a better mode of living and loving makes him a difficult partner.
The storyline almost seems inspired by De Sade, in that it roughly follows two sisters’ experiments in ‘alternate lifestyles’ back when gas lamps were still the norm. In a British mining town, sisters Gudrun and Ursula Brangwen (Glenda Jackson & Jennie Linden) teach art and wonder if they should surrender their futures to the convention of marriage. Ursula works with the desirable Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates), a teaching supervisor already involved with the fashionable arts patron Hermione (Eleanor Bron). Through a wedding party given by the mine owners the Criches (Alan Webb & Catherine Wilmer) the Brangwen sisters come together with Rupert and Gerald Crich, the heir to the mine (Oliver Reed). Half-snickering at the class tensions involved, Rupert challenges the others to be daring about sex and sexual roles. Although he and Ursula become a serious couple, Rupert’s fundamental disappointment distresses her — what more does he expect from life?
The brooding, sometimes brutal Gerald attracts Gudrun, who discovers that she’s attracted to the danger of being roughed up by a lover. And Rupert and Gerald work out their relationship by wrestling nude by firelight and pledging their brotherhood as men divorced from moral norms. A holiday in the Swiss Alps brings more tension to the foursome. Soon dissatisfied with the snowy paradise, Rupert seeks to escape. Sculptress Gudrun becomes attracted to Loerke (Vladek Sheybal), a German artist with a cruel, sadistic streak. She begins to torment Gerald for being unimaginative and dull.
Back in college in 1970, Women in Love seemed to be playing in Westwood every weekend, at midnight shows. I must have seen it twice, with young women more intrigued by the premise than I was. It seemed a challenge to one’s pre-programmed ideas about life. Why should we just think about finding ‘the’ partner and settling into a marriage like that of our parents? What’s this business about free love? Ken Russell’s visual embellishment of the Lawrence text makes the Edwardian-era conflicts seem very modern. If one wants to run one’s love life via a manifesto, Rupert Birkin certainly has the blueprint for amorous anarchy. The tone is set immediately in a famous scene wherein Alan Bates debates the various obscene ways one can eat a fig. Is it an intellectual observation, or a veiled sexual dare?
Ah, those intellectuals. The somewhat clueless Hermione is so convincingly blasé, we forget Eleanor Bron’s excellent lampoons of such characters in other movies. Her evening entertainment consists of Isadora Duncan-style dancing to piano music. When Rupert cruelly switches to a ragtime dance in the middle of the performance, We know that Hermione has been expelled from the inner circle of proto- hipsters. Intellectual truth must always be cruel, but members of the club forget that human relationships also need trust and warmth.
The show is good for helping one decide on which side of the social-sexual divide one resides — not in sex preference, but in regard to what one demands from a partner, and is willing to give in return. I tend to side with Ursula, not because she’s conventionally safe and simple, but because the other three define ‘activist loving’ so aggressively. Whether intellectual or instinctual, they see nothing wrong with inflicting their selfish philosophies on their partners, just for effect. Both Rupert and Gudrun can be cruel in their sensitivity, and a bored Gerald might easily become abusive. Gudrun finds Loeke’s intellectual sadism to be attractive. Fascinating people can be dangerous, that’s for sure. The future marriage of Rupert and Ursula looks like an unending course of mental torture: ‘You’re not enough for me.’
I should hope that Lawrence handles the material in print as well as Ken Russell does on film, through cameraman Billy William’s expert control over the image. Most every scene introduces an engaging situation where visuals take an active part: Gudrun’s impromptu dance by the pond’s edge, a discussion by firelight, the bravura wrestling scene. Russell leaps forward with jarring visual ideas that express exactly the mood of the moment.
Gerald is compassionate and gentle with Gudrun, but she seemingly wants him to thrash and scar her the way she once saw him treat a horse. A wealthy industrialist, Gerald ignores his old father’s pleas to act more kindly toward the mineworkers. Gerald’s mother (Catherine Willmer) has completely flipped her lid. He remains devoted to her even as she treats him like a thief. When a trio of workers walks up the drive, she lets the dogs loose on them.
It’s no wonder, then, that Gerald is closed off emotionally. He compartmentalizes, idolizes and objectifies Gudrun. Russell portrays this with a visual flourish, a recurring flash-forward close-up profile of Gudrun, backlit against the Swiss sun. She has the purity of a Norse god, but is just as unforgiving. Rupert may be casually cruel, but Gudrun’s rebukes to Gerald cut as clean as a knife.
More startling effective moments: Ursula and Rupert come together naked in a field of wheat, in compositions rotated 90 degrees sideways. She walks ‘up’ in slow motion, and he walks downward from above, as if the scene were shot with a vertical iPhone. Ursula feels that they should have a complete, unbreakable relationship, yet Rupert insists on expressing his theory that marriage is a fraud.
The most effective and jarring image is a meditation on marriage as a death pact — two corpses recovered at the bottom of a drained pond are revealed to be intertwined, as in a classic poem. Roberto Rossellini presented another pair of suffocated lovers at the conclusion of his Journey to Italy, to make a completely different statement about marriage. Russell’s morbid pond discovery is just one of several perfectly realized image-poems in Women in Love.
It’s unclear whether Gerald and Rupert share a full- on homosexual relationship; if so I think Russell would have shown it more explicitly. As it is, their ‘brotherly fellowship’ midnight wrestling bout probably ranks among the most effective non-explicit homoerotic scenes ever in a mainstream movie. Russell makes no effort to hide the male nudity, and seems all the more honest and non-exploitative for it.
Gudrun’s personal formula for life (art + danger = Excitement) is shown when she confronts a herd of long-horned bulls with her performance fall-back, dancing. She thinks it essential that Gerald knows she’s more daring and bold than he is.
At one point Hermione becomes so fed up with Rupert that she smacks his head with a rock. In a scene that sounds too precious — potentially laughable — Rupert then stumbles naked into a moonlit field, smears blood on his body and rolls in the grass, apparently trying to maximize the physical sensations and relate directly to nature. It works a hundred percent.
Even though modern critics might slight Lawrence’s progressive sexual notions as male-oriented and narcissistic, the characters do seem true to their historical setting. Gudrun questions and Rupert wallows in theories. Gerald tries to maintain control of his emotions, and poor Ursula just asks why life needs to be spoiled with such artificial complications. Again, Russell’s direction makes us feel all these sensations through his images. The show never bogs down into a lifestyle lecture.
Neither a screamer nor an autocrat on the set, director Ken Russell picked marvelous actors and let them do their thing. Glenda Jackson leaped to prominence and received an acting Oscar for her efforts. Alan Bates’s task is to sell the Lawrence spirit, which he does with elan — he’s inspired one moment and a real joy-killer the next. This is probably the movie that best shows Oliver Reed’s acting range. Normally cast as a bruiser or a bully, Reed’s Gerald projects a guarded sensitivity. That Jackson’s Gudrun sees him only as a brute to be humiliated, is a tragedy.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Women in Love is quite an achievement. The new 4K transfer replicates the striking colors of the original presentation (which I saw at least four times projected), and more importantly, maintains the darkness of many images. The greenish-blue dusk-for-night shots look moist and clammy, and the candle-lit chalet interiors are warm and yellow. The change from England to snowy Zermatt is a jump to crystal clarity. We can feel that the light itself will bring the character tensions to a boil.
Criterion’s extras this time have some must-see highlights — full list below. Glenda Jackson’s interview from 1976 is from a poor quality videotape, but hearing her speak is a delight — she’s so reasoned and articulate in her opinions. An hourlong TV show produced and starring Alan Bates, is an adaptation of another D. H. Lawrence story.
Linda Ruth Williams’s insert essay explains that the adaptation is as much Russell as it is Lawrence. She says the film updates the story to the 1920s, and numerous details back up the claim. The song ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ is from 1919 and the motorcars we see range from 1915 to 1926, according to the IMCD. I’m not sure about the dancing on view. We do see the funeral of a soldier but nobody speaks directly about the war. Is all this part of Ken Russell’s penchant for creative anachronism?
The real delight in the extras is A British Picture: Portrait of an Enfant Terrible, a film by Russell about his own life and career. The playful, hilarious docu takes the Enfant Terrible idea literally — Russell uses a cheerful small boy to play himself, all the way from age five to adulthood. Russell narrates, in a fine spirit.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Women in Love
Supplements (from Criterion):
Two audio commentaries from 2003, one featuring director Ken Russell and the other screenwriter and producer Larry Kramer; Segments from a 2007 interview with Russell for the BAFTA Los Angeles Heritage Archive; A British Picture: Portrait of an Enfant Terrible, Russell’s 1989 biopic on his own life and career; Interview from 1976 with actor Glenda Jackson; Interviews with Kramer and actors Alan Bates and Jennie Linden from the set;
New interviews with director of photography Billy Williams and editor Michael Bradsell;
Second Best, a 1972 short film based on a D. H. Lawrence story, produced by and starring Bates; Trailer. Plus an illustrated booklet with an essay by scholar Linda Ruth Williams.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 14, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson
Here’s Dan Ireland’s commentary on the Russell film: