I think most of us remember D.H. Lawrence today for pushing boundaries of what was considered “appropriate” and “decent” in the 1920s. His 1928 novel Lady Chatterly’s Lover was a scandal and was not printed in the United Kingdom uncensored until, believe it or not, 1960.
At the end of that decade, director Ken Russell would adapt one of Lawrence’s earlier works, the 1920 novel Women in Love. This film is a reminder that Russell was not just an adapter of Lawrence’s work but also a fellow trailblazer. Russell’s Women in Love continued to push boundaries and provoke scandal. In the middle, there is a scene where the male leads wrestle naked, and, famously, the camera doesn’t shy away. It should be noted, though, that this is not really meant to provoke and the scene is beautifully choreographed. It’s an artistic expression of an erotically charged male relationship, where violence seems the best way to work it out. The film has been the subject of moral outrage ever since. Russell would go on to provoke more controversy, particularly with his 1971 film, The Devils, which still doesn’t have a decent, unexpurgated home video release in the United States, despite being worthy of deep consideration. But let’s not go there. Let’s luxuriate in the beauties that are contained in Women in Love.
The film begins by introducing us to the two central women, sisters Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, played by Jennie Linden and Glenda Jackson, respectively, with Jackson winning an Academy Award for her performance. They live in the English Midlands, in a small mining town called Beldover. As the credits roll, they are off to a wedding.
Though they are anxiously heading to ritual of romantic union, the sisters wonder if they would ever have, or even want, such a fate. As they watch the wedding, though, we see that they do have their eyes on two men from the town. Ursula, a school teacher, watches a man named Rupert Birkin (played by Alan Bates), a school inspector who fascinated her during one of his prior visits. Gudrun watches the town’s most eligible bachelor, Gerald Crich (played by the powerful Oliver Reed). The Crich family owns the mine.
It actually doesn’t take long for these couples to come together.
Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed as Gudrun Brangwen and Gerald Crich.
Jennie Linden and Alan Bates as Ursula Brangwen and Rupert Birkin. And recognizing her relationship with Rupert is failing, we see Eleanor Bron as Hermione Roddice.
The next act of the film shows the couples coming together, testing the water, so to say, of romantic union in a world with stark contrasts. For example, we have the strong, industrial Gerald:
And the natural, flowing Gudrun:
There’s no rational way to explain their attraction, and yet it’s there and it’s powerful. It’s going to be volatile. Gerald sees her dancing in front of the cattle and calls her ridiculous. Yet he also admits he loves her. “That’s one way of putting it,” she replies.
In contrast, Rupert and Ursula strike up a softer relationship, one more compatible — it seems.
The film’s photography, in case you cannot tell by the stills, is masterfully shot. This was cinematographer Billy Williams’s second film with Russell. After Williams went on to shoot The Exorcist, On Golden Pond, and Gandhi, they’d come back together twenty years later to adapt another D.H. Lawrence novel, The Rainbow, a kind of prequel to Women in Love (in that film, incidentally, Glenda Jackson returns, but to play the mother to the adolescent Brangwen sisters). Williams’ work in Women in Love is one of the main attractions and one of the reasons I think the film is a better vehicle for Lawrence’s story than Lawrence’s own prose. There’s a nice supplement on the Criterion edition in which Williams talks about his work on this film.
While the film begins by focusing on the women who are falling in love (or, as Gudrun nicely put it, something like that), it turns its attention to the powerful forces of attraction: Gerald and Rupert. They have their own relationship, and, for Gerald, it’s as indefinable and irrational as his love for Gudrun.
For Gerald, love is something to fight against. It’s vulnerability. He might give in when his violent urges possess him, or when he wants to possess something, but in general he’d prefer digging into the earth. Again, this is a striking contrast to Rupert, who is often portrayed in nature, and who gets Russell’s strangest camera work.
The lives and loves of these characters eventually take them away from the midlands and to the feet of the Matterhorn, an apt metaphor for the torrential, subterranean surge of emotion Gerald feels toward Gudrun, who continues to infuriate and captivate him. Again, I feel this is better conveyed by the visual metaphors Russell utilizes than Lawrence’s burning sentences.
When I sat down to plan out my thesis I knew I wanted to focus on modern British literature. Because of this, I eventually found my way into D.H. Lawrence’s work. I read his novels and stories dutifully, and I never took to them. For whatever reason, his textured world felt like an emotional bludgeon, and I felt he lacked the linguistic skill to make the philosophy at all poetic. Never getting on his wavelength is fatal, since the high emotion and philosophical curiosity is what makes D.H. Lawrence D.H. Lawrence. However, put this in the hands the genius director Ken Russell and I finally met a beautiful, visual mode of conveying Lawrence’s. Indeed, Russell’s adaptations seem the perfect way to imbibe Lawrence. It is certainly the way to experience Lawrence’s 1920 novel, Women in Love.