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.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of Women In Love is nothing short of a revelation. It hardly seems fair comparing it to MGM’s DVD from 2003, which wasn’t even anamorphic. The 4K restoration authentically captures the film’s intense painterly color palette: the vibrant hues of the Brangwen sisters’ apparel, the gold and green of the bucolic landscapes, and all the baroque details of the lavish country home interiors. The mono PCM track does well by the lyrical torrents of Lawrentian dialogue and composer Georges Delerue’s lush romantic score, which also incorporates some period-specific library tracks as well as several versions of the Jazz Age standard "I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles," a thematically integral part of the film.
Criterion carries over a pair of audio commentaries from the MGM DVD that fortunately are more complementary than redundant, even when they touch on some of the same material. Ken Russell recalls a wealth of details about the location shooting and his directorial techniques with typically sardonic aplomb. Highlights include an amusing anecdote about two elderly women’s unexpected response to the nude wrestling scene, and a moving comparison between the manner of Oliver Reed’s death in Malta while filming Gladiator and Gerald Crich’s lonely death in the Alpine snow. Larry Kramer covers the preproduction process, his early choices for director before Russell was hired on, and the salad days of Hollywood film production in England during the swinging ’60s. Kramer neatly lays out aspects of Lawrence’s life that influenced the source material, and he has some choice things to say about Lawrence’s diminished reputation within a canon of modern literature that many academics and culture vultures no long even choose to recognize.
A Talking Picture is Russell’s irreverent stab at a biopic about himself, featuring his young son as his eternally bratty stand-in. Russell clearly enjoys thumbing his nose at his reputation as (per the subtitle) the enfant terrible of British cinema. The last film covered is, fittingly enough, The Rainbow, the prequel to Women In Love. In the director’s BAFTA heritage interview, Russell claims he initially confused D.H. Lawrence with T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia fame). Fielding the usual concluding question about advice for young filmmakers, Russell offers this nugget: "All you need is discipline and a touch of genius." The archival interview with Glenda Jackson covers her work with Peter Brook, the stage and screen productions of Marat/Sade, collaborating with Russell on two films back to back, winning the Oscar for Women In Love, and turning down the Vanessa Redgrave part in The Devils.
In a 2017 interview, cinematographer Billy Williams discusses his early work with Russell on documentaries, commercials, and the Harry Palmer spy film Billion Dollar Brain. Williams goes into lots of technical detail about manipulating the day for night exposures, Russell’s penchant for well-choreographed camera movement, using handheld cameras long before the invention of the Steadicam, and recreating the location conditions of the nude wrestling match in studio for some insert shots. Williams wryly notes that the crepuscular phenomenon known as "magic hour" actually lasts about 10 minutes. Preceded by a brief interview with actor and producer Alan Bates, Second Best is another pastoral study in sisterly relations and the selection of a romantic life partner that symbolizes its emotional conflicts through the rather peculiar pastime of killing moles. Finally, the booklet contains a foldout reproduction of the cover art on one side and Linda Ruth William’s cogent essay on Women In Love’s place in Russell’s filmography on the other.
Ken Russell’s D.H. Lawrence adaptation Women In Love, gorgeous as a landscape painting, explicit as the Kinsey Report, gets an essential Blu-ray upgrade from the Criterion Collection.