In an ideal world, Ken Russell would have moved smoothly from his increasingly ambitious and cinematic BBC work of the 1960s into this film. In reality, his film career had a few commercial stutters and starts, with the likes of French Dressing and Billion Dollar Brain, before he was able to transfer the ideas and visual style that he had been developing on TV (you can read the reviews of those films here and here) with Women in Love.
Women in Love is a step to the side from what Russell had been doing – an adaptation of a literary work rather than a biopic of a famous composer or artist – and yet it feels very much like a part of a continual whole. The period setting, the presence of Oliver Reed, the use of sexuality and repressed desires all fits perfectly with what he had already been doing, but here it is given a much broader canvas – the budget of this film is probably bigger than all his BBC work combined – and the luxury of colour. While Russell had been a master of black and white imagery in his earlier work, here he uses colour to further expand his sense of style and scope – even if the world he portrays is a rather drab, grey one.
Based on the novel by D.H. Lawrence, the film is set in 1920, in the mining town of Beldover in the Midlands. Middle class sisters Ursula (Jennie Linden) and Gudrun (Glenda Jackson) become fascinated by Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed), the son and heir of the local mine owner, and his best friend Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates), a school inspector who first meets teacher Ursula in her classroom, and soon develops a fascination for her. Gudrun and Gerald also pair off, but in a more tempestuous relationship that comes to a head after an ill-fated trip by both couples to the Alps after Rupert and Ursula’s marriage. When Gudrun becomes fascinated by a gay artist (Vladek Sheyal), Gerald becomes insanely jealous, leading to a final and tragically violent confrontation.
Women in Love is perhaps domed to always be overshadowed by one single scene – the nude wrestling match between Reed and Bates. This is considered to be the first time male genitalia was seen on screen (at least in a mainstream film), though curiously, an earlier scene has Bates wandering through the woods naked, penis on display – and so it is not even the first scene of male nudity to appear in this film. But certainly, the audacity of the scene, with the lengthy shots of the naked men, makes this the more memorable and daring – even today, you probably won’t see this level of make nudity in a mainstream film. But I’d also suggest that it is the homoerotic elements of the scene that are the reason why this is so widely remembered. It might not be a sex scene as such (in countries where it was cut, the resulting edit actually made it seem as though an act of buggery had taken place rather than allegedly chaste naked wrestling), but Russell effectively shoots it as one – all sweaty close-ups of contorted faces, bodies wrapped together and leading to a final pseudo orgasm. And this is not a mischievous bit of trickery on Russell’s part. While the film might be called Women in Love, it’s really more about men in love – at least, Rupert’s love of Gerald, which may be platonic (and somewhat unrequented), but is still oozing with desire.
By contrast, there is much less passion in their relationships with the two women. Ursula and Rupert seem brought together as much through convenience and social requirements as any great love, while Gerald develops an unhealthy obsession with Gudrun, who increasingly belittles and rejects him – there is no real love between them, and the sex scenes are notably rough and joyless.
Russell successfully explores Lawrence’s world of sex, passion and class in this film, carefully contrasting the upper (and middle) class dilettantes with the oppressed, resentful yet deferential working class men in the pits. His rich people are ultimately bored, unhappy and trapped, clinging to any desperate chance of escape, and the film shows their lives to be as drab and ultimately tragic as any of the lower orders.
Russell is helped by a stellar cast – Reed is as brooding as you might expect, while Bates is just as tortured in his own way (and does a good job of being a closeted gay man without it ever actually being referred to). Linden is sparklingly amused for much of the film, and Jackson does a good job of giving her character the free spirit and intensity needed to make Reed’s obsession believable.
But ultimately, it is Russell’s visual eye that makes the film – the authentic visual style, the daring imagery and touches of dream-like weirdness that break up the sense of realism, and the sense of grandness given to a film that could have easily been just another bland, forgettable costume drama are what make this such an impressive film. I’m not sure I would agree that it is Russell’s best work – though I can’t really argue much with those who say it is. Certainly, it’s a film that transcends its origins and remains compulsive, fascinating and genuinely grand.
The new BFI edition also contains the interesting, if insubstantial Second Best, a short film starring Bates and again based on a Lawrence story, plus a short documentary about Jackson and a lengthy, audio only Guardian lecture with her from 1982, as well as commentary tracks by Russell and writer/producer Larry Kramer.