Women in Love

Director: Ken Russell
Screenplay: Larry Kramer (based on the novel by D.H. Lawrence)
Stars: Alan Bates (Rupert Birkin), Oliver Reed (Gerald Crich), Glenda Jackson (Gudrun Brangwen), Jennie Linden (Ursula Brangwen), Eleanor Bron (Hermione Roddice), Alan Webb (Thomas Crich), Vladek Sheybal (Loerke), Catherine Willmer (Mrs. Crich), Sarah Nicholls (Winifred Crich), Sharon Gurney (Laura Crich), Christopher Gable (Tibby Lupton), Michael Gough (Mr. Brangwen), Norma Shebbeare (Mrs. Brangwen)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1969
Country: U.K.
Women in Love Criterion Collection Blu-rau
Women in Love

Ken Russell’s adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s 1920 novel Women in Love was the film that put the maverick British director on the international map. Its romantically raw depiction of sexuality both fervid and repressed made it one of the breakthrough films of the new permissiveness in the mainstream treatment of what goes on between the sheets (and, in this film, in the forest and in a pond, among other places). Lawrence had literary pedigree, so it is little surprise that filmmakers flocked to adapt his heavy, amorous tomes; Women in Love was one of three major adaptations of his works in the late 1960s, the other two being The Fox (1967) and The Virgin and the Gypsy (1970). Russell, who did a complete, though uncredited, reworking of playwright/novelist Larry Kramer’s script, sticks close to Lawrence’s novel, lifting entire sections of dialogue verbatim, yet the film remains resolutely his.

And how could it be otherwise? Although not to everyone’s tastes (including, I must admit, my own), Russell was a singular cinematic artist who went boldly or not at all. Words like excessive and distasteful were the most common adjectives used to describe his films, particularly the impressive run of purplish, gaudy, controversial biopics he churned out in the 1970s, including The Music Lovers (1971), about the Russian composer Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky, which Russell described simply as a film about “a homosexual married to a nymphomaniac”; Savage Messiah (1972), about the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska; Mahler (1974), about Austro-Bohemian composer Gustav Mahler; Lisztomania (1975), about Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt; and Valentino (1977), about the Hollywood silent-movie romantic icon Rudolph Valentino. During that period he also directed a horror film—the incendiary The Devils (1971)—and two musicals—The Boy Friend (1971), starring Twiggy, and Tommy (1975), his obnoxious cinematic version of The Who’s great rock opera. Anything that might be viewed as “excessive” in Women in Love—and there were many critics at the time who used that very word—was just a warm-up for what was to come.

Set against the backdrop of British high society in the years just after World War II, the story centers around two unlikely couples who spend the first half the film coming together and the second half trying to stay together. The women of the title are two sisters, Gundrun (Glenda Jackson), a calculating and free-spirited painter and despises convention, especially when it comes to romance and marriage, and Ursula (Jennie Linden), a schoolteacher who aspires to Gundrun’s rebellion, but is decidedly more grounded. Gundrun is drawn to Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed), the wealthy, but exceeding glum and violent inheritor of his thoroughly unpleasant father’s coal mining operation, while Ursula becomes involved with Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates), an unmoored intellectual who delights in social provocation. The film’s single greatest scene finds Rupert at a posh outdoor lunch describing in luridly sexual detail how his then-lover Hermione Roddice (Eleanor Bron), a self-centered socialite, should properly eat a fig. There is something wonderfully subversive about the delight Rupert takes in this extended food etiquette-as-double-entendre, and the whole scene has a wicked energy that the rest of the film studiously lacks.

It’s not that Russell doesn’t try, but he succeeds mostly in confusion. There is a lot that happens in the film, but there is very little understanding about why any of it happens. There are numerous scenes in which characters expound mightily about themselves and each other, but by the end of the film I didn’t feel like I really knew any of them. There are some great charaterizations, including Vladek Sheybal’s Loerke, a fey German to whom Gundrun takes a liking during a trip to the Swiss Alps mainly to enflame the morbid Gerald’s simmering jealousy. The film wants to work as a series of contrasts, particularly regarding Rupert and Gerald, who are polar opposites and yet great friends. Rupert, with his floppy hair and longish beard, is a high-minded sensualist looking for connection, which he wants with both Ursula and Gerald, while Gerald, with his perfectly cropped moustache and brick-like jawline, is so closed-off that he is incapable of giving anything of himself. There is a strong homoerotic undertone throughout the film, which is not surprising given that Larry Kramer’s fame as a writer derived largely from his depiction of gay lives (he courted immense controversy with his 1978 novel Faggots and went on to become a leader in the fight against AIDS in the 1980s). The idea of repressed gay desire is certainly present in Lawrence’s novel, and it works as both literal sexuality and a spiritual/emotional extension of Rupert’s need for intense human connection with both men and women.

While Russell largely fails to make dramatic connections and bring us into the inner world of his characters’ conflicted desires, he succeeds mightily in making a film of often breathtaking beauty that balances the conventions of the British costume drama with his experimental proclivities. Russell had already made a name for himself in the world of British television, having directed numerous biographical documentaries for the BBC that dared to mix fact and fiction and various aesthetic styles. He ported that over to his visualization of Women in Love, although you often sense that he’s trying to fill the film’s emotional voids with superlative visual impact, which can only work for so long. There is little humanity in the film (although quite a bit more than you find in his later efforts), which doesn’t give you much to grab onto dramatically. If you find your interest waning as the film moves on, it is likely due to exhaustion of trying to generate empathy with characters who constantly evade such connection. So much of the film feels written and performed, but rarely lived.

Women in Love is replete with memorable moments, including the infamous nude wrestling match between Rupert and Gerald on the floor of a drawing room in front of a blazing fireplace; the tragic discovery of a drowned newlywed couple at the bottom of a pond that has been drained, their naked limbs intertwined in a death’s embrace; and several dream-like evocations of sexual fantasia, the best of which finds Rupert and Ursula running into each other’s arms in a shot tilted on its side, which allows Russell and cinematographer Billy Williams (whose work here was nominated for an Oscar) to emphasize their extended arms and grasping hands. These moments of visual power linger, even if the film’s abrupt end feels almost stridently unsatisfying.

Women in Love Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.75:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary from 2003 by director Ken Russell
  • Audio commentary from 2003 by 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
  • Video interview with director of photography Billy Williams
  • Video interview with editor Michael Bradsell
  • Second Best, a 1972 short film based on a D. H. Lawrence story, produced by and starring Bates
  • Trailer
  • Essay by scholar Linda Ruth Williams
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMarch 27, 2018

    Criteron’s Blu-ray of Women in Love is a notable improvement over MGM’s 2003 DVD, which looks quite harsh and dark in comparison. The image on Criterion’s disc comes from a 4K digital transfer of the original 35mm camera negative, which was restored at Deluxe 142 in London and features color grading under the supervision of cinematographer Billy Williams, who used his own personal dye-transfer Technicolor print as reference. Not surprisingly, then, the image, which is framed at 1.75:1, is quite marvelous, with gorgeous colors than emphasize the purposeful use of different color palettes in different scenes (some are decidedly warm, while others feature a stark greenish hue or a bluish tint). The detail is outstanding throughout despite the image’s slight softness, and contrast is spot-on with excellent shadow detail. The original monaural soundtrack was mastered from the magnetic track masters and is presented in uncompressed Linear PCM that sounds quite good. The supplements include the two audio commentaries that were recorded in 2003 for the MGM DVD: one by director Ken Russell and one by screenwriter and producer Larry Kramer. Criterion has added quite a bit to that, including a 13-minute excerpt from a video interview with Russell shot in 2007 for the BAFTA Los Angeles Heritage Archive and new video interviews with Williams (25 min.) and editor Michael Bradsell (17 min.). From the archives we have an interview from 1976 with actor Glenda Jackson (20 min.) and a segment from a 1968 episode of the British television show ATV Today that includes behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Kramer and actors Alan Bates and Jennie Linden from the set (10 min.). There are also two complete films included: A British Picture: Portrait of an Enfant Terrible (1989), Russell’s biopic on his own life and career, and Second Best (1972), a short film based on a D. H. Lawrence story that was produced by and stars Alan Bates. There is also an original theatrical trailer, and the fold-out insert with a new essay by scholar Linda Ruth Williams.

    Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection / MGM/UA

    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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