Ken Russell’s Women In Love is one of those exceedingly rare film adaptations of a vaunted literary work that successfully manages to fuse fidelity to the source material with its director’s distinctive visual style. Larry Kramer’s screenplay lifts virtually all of its dialogue from D.H. Lawrence’s novel, with a few judicious interpolations from the author’s poems and letters, while Russell smuggles in some delirious set pieces that resonantly connect with his overall body of work. Counted among these are an interpretive dance in the style of the Russian ballet that recalls his earlier TV biography of Isadora Duncan, and an erotic roleplaying game that comes across like a dress rehearsal for Russell’s Tchaikovsky bio The Music Lovers, his very next project, also starring Glenda Jackson in the role she improvises upon here.
Where Lawrence’s book maintains a deliberately vague timeframe, the film is set soon after the end of World War I, when the shockwaves of the war have shattered many of the time-bound certitudes of British society. Youthful members of the Lost Generation seem more interested in exploring the myriad possibilities for sexual and personal freedom than settling into hitherto conventional patterns, a state of affairs that neatly parallels the era of the film’s release in the late 1960s. Women In Love establishes these social conditions early on, when, on their way to a high-society wedding, the middle-class Brangwen sisters—schoolmarm Ursula (Jennie Linden) and aspiring artist Gudrun (Jackson)—pass a child on the street begging for change with a placard that reads “Remember the Somme,” referencing a particularly disastrous battle that left over 50,000 British troops dead or maimed.
The wedding scene provides an occasion for some witty philosophical banter on the subject of matrimony, as well as the ideal backdrop for introducing those who inhabit the film’s industrially blighted Midlands mining town, namely the two men with whom the Brangwen sisters will eventually become romantically entangled. While waiting in the churchyard for the ceremony to begin, Ursula and Gudrun exchange significant glances with freethinker Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates), who, with his poetic soliloquies and pointed beard, clearly stands in for Lawrence himself, and brooding industrial heir Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed), respectively. The graveyard setting also slyly announces the link between love and death that will recur throughout the film.
Women In Love at first suggests an acerbic comedy of manners along the lines of Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow, what with Rupert’s salacious ode to the uses and abuses of a fig at an outdoor luncheon, and a ridiculous modern dance routine that degenerates into a ragtime. These incidents emphasize Lawrence’s (and Russell’s) contempt for everything stuffy and stultified. Despite these initial stabs at social satire, the film’s tone begins to darken when death and disillusionment rear their heads over the course of an ill-fated, late-summer party by a lake. Russell and editor Michael Bradsell execute brilliant match cuts between the bodies of the doomed newlyweds, who have just drowned while bathing au naturel, and Ursula and Rupert entwined in a post-coital embrace that leaves Ursula in tears.
Sex intrudes in quite different ways on both of the film’s central relationships. Rupert revolts against Ursula’s penchant for domestic complacency by asserting his need for a relationship with a man that’s as passionate and “eternal” as theirs. He extends his offer of “blood brotherhood” to Gerald after the notorious nude wrestling scene, which is as close as the book and film come to rendering Lawrence’s unspoken and often conflicted feelings about his own bisexual tendencies. But Gerald seems unable to truly feel anything for Rupert—or anyone else, for that matter. The film roots this incapacity in Gerald’s sense of his own inadequacy, as demonstrated during the water party, when his father dresses him down for not responding quickly and cleverly enough. Gerald gets his own back, after a fashion, by stomping across his father’s grave on his way to a midnight rendezvous with Gudrun.
Matters come to a head in the shadow of the Matterhorn, where the foursome hope to elude recent experiences of loss and disappointment. Tensions between Gerald and Gudrun are exacerbated, however, by the presence of a somewhat sinister German artist, Loerke (Vladek Sheybal), lurking around the edges of their party. Loerke’s decadent sensibilities and proto-fascistic brutality prove a strange lure for Gudrun. Gerald’s snowbound demise surely must have exerted some influence on the ending of Kubrick’s The Shining. Women In Love, for its part, concludes not with Rupert’s blunt refusal to give up on his ideals, as the novel does, but on Ursula’s nonplussed reaction shot.
This review first appeared in Slant Magazine.