What better time than 1969 for a convergence between the Bad Boy of early-20th Century literature, D.H. Lawrence, and the enfant terrible of late-20th Century film, Ken Russell? Though Lawrence’s reputation as a major writer long ago outpaced the early detractors of his day who called him a “pornographer” and Russell’s work as a director is wildly uneven—variously revered as ground-breaking and reviled as cheap and sensational—at least one of their meetings seems as fated and felicitous an encounter of artistic spirits as that of Merchant and Ivory with E.M. Forster. Lawrence lived in and wrote about an era of cataclysmic cultural change, and his rich 1920 novel Women in Love is regarded as one of his most ambitious works. In another time of societal upheaval and cultural sea-change, Russell made the novel into what many consider his most articulate and fully realized film.
Released in Britain in 1969 and the U.S. in ’70, Women in Love is a haunting, cinematically lush, adaptation of a challenging, multifaceted novel. Larry Kramer’s screenplay is faithful to the text and impressive in its distillation. As important as its adherence to the major narrative points and themes is the film’s stylistic elan and pungency. The cinematography by Billy Williams (On Golden Pond, Gandhi, Sunday Bloody Sunday) infuses Lawrence’s emotional and intellectual argument with sensuous energy, and the production design—particularly Kenneth Jones’ art direction and Shirley Russell’s costumes—is spot on. This ripe visual flair evinces the conflicted passions, romantic subtlety, and complex sensuality that are the essence of the spirit of Lawrence’s work—as does the work of the generally excellent cast including unforgettable, pitch-perfect performances by Glenda Jackson, who won the Best Actress Oscar, Alan Bates, Jennie Linden, Eleanor Bron, Oliver Reed, Vladek Sheybal, and Catherine Willmer.
Adapting Lawrence for the screen is difficult, not least because the strength and import of his writing can also be its weakness. In exploring the intersections of class and sexual politics, the fault lines between flesh and the spirit (both real and artificially enforced by Victorian mores), and the incursions of industrialization on the natural world and human spirit, Lawrence’s novels are at times polemical, his characters frequently used less to embody a story as to function as purveyors of earnest ideas. Even so, his novels from 1913 through the ‘20s are remarkable—he is recognized as a passionate observer, prophet, and provocateur. His work seethes with the contradictions of a far-seeing artist who welcomes the freedom of modernity but rails against humans becoming automatons estranged from the vital essence of their being. At the time of his death at only 45 in 1930, Forster described him as, “the greatest imaginative novelist of our generation”.
The film’s structure is episodic and fluid. In the Midlands mining town of Beldover, two sisters, Gudrun (Jackson) and Ursula (Linden), are courted by Gerald (Reed), a wealthy young coal-mine owner, and Rupert (Bates), a philosophical school inspector and Gerald’s best friend. Schoolteachers in the local school, both Gudrun and Ursula are dreamers. They also want to be “modern women” and are reluctant to pattern their lives on the dim, suffocating life of their mother. Gudrun is artistic, Ursula more down to earth. Ursula enters into a love affair with Rupert, and Gerald and Gudrun embark on a far stormier liaison. Both Rupert and Gerald despair over their need for some other sort of bond. Gerald is also disturbed by his apparent inability to develop any personal relationships outside the dominion of his mechanistic mining world. The two couples go together to Switzerland on holiday, and there in the unforgiving glare of hyperborean clarity the various tensions, desires, and questions loom inescapably.
Russell, who died in 2011, is known for the sometimes intelligent, sometimes sophomoric, sexual audacity and religious iconoclasm of his movies (Valentino, The Devils) and the irreverence of his film biographies of Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Mahler. His outright musicals (Tommy, The Boy Friend) met with more critical approval, and his Altered States (1980), written for the screen by Paddy Chayefsky and starring William Hurt and Blair Brown, garnered both decent critical appraisal and box office. He also directed a film version of Lawrence’s The Rainbow in 1989 and in 1993 a television mini-series of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In later interviews, Russell, always the contrarian, avowed that although he regarded Women in Love as creditable it was not his best work. Many film buffs and critics disagree. Vincent Canby, in his New York Times review in 1970 wrote that the movie “captures a feeling of nature and of physical contact between people, and between people and nature, that is about as sensuous as anything you’ve probably ever seen in a film”. (Despite—or perhaps because of—intervening decades of explicit sexuality and numbing physical and psychic violence in film this remains, in some significant degrees and qualities, true of Women in Love 46 years later.)
The late 1960s and 1970s are now viewed as one of the most memorable heydays of cinema—an era of inventiveness and daring, of narrative, aesthetic, and technical experimentation. A vital part of the cultural realignments of the times, films across the genres reflected new perspectives: societal issues came to the fore, comedies evoked a different kind of laughter, suspense became more edgily psychological, dramas rawer, sexuality less suppressed and romance less formulaic. Whether the more memorable films of this time variously gave voice and vision to a zeitgeist, emboldened, inspired, shocked, or merely goaded with a sort of glorious discomfort or exhilaration, they were films that were difficult to get out of your system. Even some viewers who’ve never found Lawrence their cup of tea say this of the vivid, strangely absorbing Women in Love.
– Hadley Hury
(Releasing August 22 on Blu-ray. Also available through TCM and Amazon.)