WOMEN IN LOVE: Blu-ray (United Artists, 1970) Criterion Collection
In 2007, director Ken Russell was asked to impart his advice on aspiring young film makers. “Watch silent films,” Russell immediately replied, “…all of them. From Cecile B. DeMille to Fritz Lang. Don’t watch television. And all you need is a great deal of discipline and a touch of genius.” This, quite frankly, remains the single best counsel likely to reach the ears of modern hopefuls, toiling for their art and craftsmanship. For surely, in the decades since Russell’s Women in Love (1970) debuted, movies have only continued in their even more rapid decline to become glorified television episodes, framed in the friendlier 1:85.1 aspect ratio to accommodate rebroadcasting on the small screen, and, even more detrimentally, staged with cookie-cutter simplicity, wholly absent of such fearless experimentation and stylistic finesse to mark them as bona fide ‘big screen’ achievements, elevated and advancing the arts and sciences of the industry that bore them.
The singular aspect well worth noting about Women in Love is that it bears an exuberant, often vulgar, but always fascinating and uncanny theatricality – void of the conventional histrionics of TV-land melodrama. Such was Russell’s protean métier; to consistently dazzle us with cinema’s ever-inventive and boundary-pushing possibilities. Women in Love is arguably Russell’s best regarded masterpiece. There are others. Yet its philosophical stage-bound quality (in the best sense) is undoubtedly, if at least partly, owed to Larry Kramer’s exquisite screenplay (cribbing whole chunks of dialogue from D.H. Lawrence’s taboo-smashing 1920 novel of the same name); also, the peerless performances put forth by a bearded Alan Bates (as Lawrence’s alter ego), steely-eyed Oliver Reed, precocious Jennie Linden, and, in her Oscar-winning role, a wickedly intoxicating Glenda Jackson. Still, at least half of the picture’s endurance these many years later is afforded to Russell, for his magisterial command of the camera; particularly, the brashness in setting the entire image askew for a ‘then’ daringly nude ‘dream sequence’ with Bates and Linden racing toward each other through a field of daisies and tall grasses in slo-mo from the top and bottom of the frame. I can think of only a few film makers from Russell’s ilk who might have been as bold to try this. Virtually none from our present age would even conjure it to mind, much less revel in its bold execution.
Women in Love encountered blushed to penetrating boycotts from the censors over Russell’s decision to photograph one of Lawrence’s pivotal chapters – a raw wrestling match within the confines of a stately drawing room, between Reed’s brutish and tortured mine owner, Gerald Crich, and Bate’s more cerebral sexual philosopher, Rupert Birkin. Set before a roaring fire, this – perhaps above all other great moments in the picture – is the watershed to ensconce the fracture between Lawrence’s academic emancipation of human sexuality and the very concrete fallout from its deviance into uncertain experimentation. In truth, Russell had pretty much already resigned himself to staging the wrestling match in a forest by moonlight, so as to more delicately conceal the nudity of his male co-stars. It was only after an impromptu visit from Reed, pounding on Russell’s front door at 2am and demanding the scene be shot as Lawrence had written it, that the director agreed to give it the artful go-around by flickering flames (a sublime amplification of the otherwise mortally suppressed homoeroticism in Crich and Birkin’s friendship) with both men’s twigs and berries blessedly bobbling.
Women in Love is, in fact, as hallowed for Russell’s mid-sixties hipster’s approach to the forensic analysis of sexual freedom as it remains anchored in Lawrence’s posthumously awarded literary fame as a progressive expositionist, embracing the hedonism and counterculture of his own time. In authoring the screenplay, Larry Kramer (also the picture’s producer) was adamant to cast according to type. To this end, he would have much preferred Edward Fox as Crich, described by Lawrence as ‘blonde, glacial and Nordic’; qualities that no purist of D.H. Lawrence could ascribe to the dark and brooding Oliver Reed. If only Reed had not been the more bankable star of his generation. Then again, he is utterly magnificent in the part! Ostensibly, Kramer had planned to remain out of the fray altogether. He had originally commissioned David Mercer to write a screenplay and already begun his search for the ideal director: his short list, to include Jack Clayton, Stanley Kubrick and Peter Brook. Virtually, all turned him down. Fourth on his wish list was Ken Russell, yet to direct a legitimate feature film. Regrettably, Kramer could also not convince even Russell to partake of the exercise after showing him a copy of Mercer’s script. In fact, Russell thought it a horrible mishmash. Persistent to a fault, Kramer encouraged Russell to read D.H. Lawrence’s novel; a move that invigorated Russell’s participation on the project with both men concurring Mercer’s adaptation had veered too far from the author’s steamy hypotheses on the fragility and frigidity of human intimacy. In hindsight, Kramer was taking a big chance on Russell. United Artists balked at Kramer’s pressing to cast Glenda Jackson, believing her unconventionally ‘boyishness’ belied the attractiveness of the character as written. Rubbish! As Jackson would prove, she was every bit the Bohemian sculptress, Gudrun Brangwen, justly taking home the Academy Award as Best Actress for her haughty, yet haunted ‘free’ spirit.
In hindsight, Women in Love remains the most deftly conjured and startlingly tragic expression of Eros’ darker side. For none of these experimenters in pursuit of ever-elusive romantic love on their own terms finds his or her way to Kubla Khan’s mythical pleasure dome. In fact, the disconnect from middle-class morality, to the more highfalutin and scholarly weigh-ins put forth by the moneyed - if thoroughly jaded - hoi poloi, to the rawest slum-prudery, evoked by the sinewy, soot-stained and cat-calling chaps working the collieries, creates an unhealthily jaundiced environment, ripe for the most heinous and aberrant sexual frustrations. These conclude in rape, death and suicide. While the picture today remains arguably ‘fresh’ in its probing exploration of Lawrence’s human folly, with Russell’s particular brand of unflinching frankness to recommend it, its enduring popularity is wed to an even more bizarrely engrossing lushness and exoticism, marking Women in Love as Russell’s unqualified chef-d'oeuvre.
Set in the Midland’s mining village of Beldover, circa 1920; Russell immediately thrusts us into the lives of two devoted sisters, Gudrun (Glenda Jackson) and Ursula Brangwen (Jennie Linden). Women in Love is actually a sequel to D.H. Lawrence’s previous novel – The Rainbow (considered so grotesquely scandalous, it was prosecuted in an ‘obscenity trial’). Of an age to wed, neither Gudrun nor her sister particularly regards marriage as the penultimate aspiration to complete their lives; particularly Gudrun, who considers the very thought of a ‘life together’ with any man an anathema to every hope of achieving sexual satisfaction. When first we meet the girls, they are bound for a small country chapel to witness the marriage of Laura Crich (Sharon Gurney), the daughter of wealthy mine owner, Thomas (Alan Webb), to young and dashing naval officer, Tibby Lupton (Christopher Gable). During the ceremony, Gudrun finds herself strangely drawn to Laura's bachelor/brother, Gerald – heir apparent to his father’s fortunes, despite being despised by the men. Ursula covets his best friend, school inspector, Rupert Birkin, already attached to the priggish modernist and self-professed/pseudo-intellectual, Hermione Roddice (Eleanor Bron). As Ursula is a school teacher, she and Rupert have met – socially – when he interrupted her flirtatious discourse regarding the sexual nature of the catkin.
Gudran and Ursula are invited, along with Gerald, Tibby, Laura and other mutual friends to a house party at Hermione’s lavishly appointed country estate. Alas, the luncheon on the lawn becomes erotically suggestive when Rupert elects to deconstruct the common fig as a womb-like fruit to be perversely relished. Leaving her husband to continue his discussion with Gerald, Hermione encourages her guests to go for a stroll. Gerald and Rupert have their first frank exchange regarding Gerald’s romantic intentions toward Gudran. Cruelly, Rupert evoking his incapacity to truly love any one. Sometime later, Hermione forces Gudran and Ursula to partake of her truly bizarre interpretation of a Russian ballet. Hermione’s need to dominate her guests frustrates Rupert. He debunks her pretentiousness by encouraging the pianist accompanying this artistic charade to suddenly deviate into ragtime. This liberates Gudran and Ursula from their commitment to the ballet. They pair off; Gudran with Gerald, and Rupert with Ursula. Hermione storms off to an adjacent drawing room where Rupert confronts her as a sexual neurotic. Unable to intellectually justify her position in their argument, Hermione strikes Rupert with a glass paperweight, inflicting a gash near his left temple. He staggers to his feet and rushes from the estate, stripping naked to wander aimlessly through the nearby woods, brushing against dew-drenched foliage with wild abandonment.
We flash ahead to the Criches’ annual summer picnic. During the late afternoon’s festivities, Ursula discovers Gudran has skulked off to a secluded spot where she indulges in an almost trance-like dance to impress some Highland cattle. While Ursula momentarily fears for her sister’s safety, as the cattle - with their long-horns – might just as easily gore her, Gerald’s sudden and unexpected appearance puts a period to Gudran’s performance as ‘impossible and ridiculous’. Still, at the end of his admonishment, he rather tenderly declares his love for her. As twilight descends upon the estate and its revelers, the seemingly romantic mood turns unexpectedly ominous and fatal. Having stripped bare to indulge in a brief frolic in the nearby lake, Laura is dragged down by an undertow. In attempting her rescue, Tibby also drowns. Narrowly escaping a similar fate, a distraught Gerald is unable to save either his beloved sister or her husband; their bodies discovered, locked in each other’s arms, face down in the silt, after the lake is drained.
Gudran and Gerald begin a relationship after she encounters him exiting from a typical English pub, escorting a trio of obvious whores. Again, Gerald is entranced with Gudran. Essentially, the rest of the film’s plot is centralized on Gerald’s increasing infatuation with Gudran and its lamentable fallout. She does not love him but will remain silent for some time thereafter. In the meantime, Gerald and Rupert indulge in their manly discussions on romantic love. At one point, Rupert suggests they wrestle Japanese-style by the light of a roaring hearth. The two men strip naked; Rupert, repeatedly tossing Gerald off, prompting their spirited play to become more strangely sexual and aggressive. At the end of the match, both men are physically spent, collapsing beside one another on an Oriental carpet. Rupert makes his boldest confession yet; he and Gerald should solemnly swear by a display of blood to ‘love each other’. Alas, Gerald does not interpret their closeness in the same way. The moment is lost and Rupert sheepishly withdraws from their discussion.
Rather impetuously, Rupert now retreats to Ursula and, after a night of passionate love-making, proposes marriage. Gerald becomes hopelessly lust-struck for Gudrun. She entertains his dalliances to a point, allowing him to kiss her in the tunnel where many a common miner is frequently found necking with his significant other. Thomas falls ill with consumption and grows weaker by the hour. Upon his death, Gerald is riddled with guilt, never to be assuaged by his dotty mother, Winifred (Phoebe Nicholls) who mercilessly tosses not only a shovel of earth over her late husband’s coffin at the funeral, but the shovel as well, madly gurgling laughter. Haunted by Thomas’ death, Gerald revisits the gravesite after the mourners have gone home, burying his hands in the fresh mud. Next, he skulks off, resurfacing hours later, and much to Gudrun’s surprise, in her bedroom, welcomed by her to consummate their affair.
Upon Rupert and Ursula’s marriage, Gerald proposes a Christmas vacation in the Alps; the foursome, retiring to a quaint chalet near the Matterhorn where Gudrun takes a curious shine to a wily stranger, Loerke (Vladek Sheybal), travelling with a male companion (Richard Heffer). It is later revealed, these two are lovers. But for the moment Gudrun’s fascination with Loerke, based on his philosophy, that to create great art one must also be brutal, leads Gerald to wild distraction. Gerald confides in Rupert that he loves Gudrun so completely, merely to have his affections spurned by her is enough to make him teeter on the brink of madness. Exposing his jealousies to Gudrun, Gerald incurs her visceral contempt. That evening, in their room at the chalet, Gudrun’s brittle taunts lead to Gerald’s violent rape of her. Tormented by his behavior, yet forced to endure even more frequent and callous admonishments, Gerald snaps again. While he and Gudrun are alone on the snow-covered peaks, he almost strangles her in a fit of distrust. Withdrawing at the last possible moment, Gerald leaves a gasping Gudrun to find her way back to the chalet as he trudges off blindly into the snowy abyss. As the sun sets, Gerald discards his protective outer wear, allowing hypothermia to overcome him. His rigid corpse is later retrieved by a rescue party. Back in England, Rupert mournfully suffers the loss of his best friend. As Ursula and he contemplate their definitions of love, she infers there can only be one kind. Rupert disagrees, suggesting that while she will be enough for him as the love of any good woman can be, there is another love, manifested best of all in the eternal bond that can only be shared between men.
Released in Britain in 1969 and the US at the cusp of 1970, Women in Love was heralded at the time as a solid adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s controversial novel; rather interesting, considering the many artistic liberties inserted into the film. One of the biggest hits of the year, the picture was also nominated for four Oscars; Best Director, Cinematography, Screenwriting and Actress – winning only in this latter category for Glenda Jackson’s astutely clear-eyed and wantonly smug central performance. While timidity in art is an undervalued virtue of the cinema arts these days, Women in Love continues to pack a wallop today, though perhaps more so for Ken Russell’s audaciously odd blend of glamorous sensuality wed to sexual brutalities. Indeed, this is not a movie about ‘love’ or even the two women who indulge its’ many forms; rather, a cruel and oft pungent epiphany on the destructive complexion of desire.
Consider, not one of our protagonists finds happiness in love. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Even Rupert and Ursula, the only couple to have ‘survived’ its sway (literally) are brought to a reluctant comprehension their union will likely fade, if only under the simple realization it has never truly ripening to the point where such wild-eyed abandonment of the senses can occur. Are they ‘in love’ or merely playing at love? Arguably, Rupert has settled for heterosexuality when homosexuality would have suited his needs more completely. Thus Ursula, perhaps only now, is forced to acknowledge (as the end titles scroll across a freeze-frame of her sobering face) she will never be ‘enough’ to satisfy the only man in her life. In the end, Women in Love asks, rather than answers, far more probing and intelligent queries about the mass of contradictions afflicting human sexuality.
Women in Love arrives on Blu-ray via a stunning new 4K image harvest from MGM/Fox, courtesy of the Criterion Collection; proof positive, even when an ‘asset management’ and holding company is as cash-strapped as MGM, it can still find the money somewhere to pull out all the necessary stops for a quality 1080p transfer. Now, can we please show some similar love for John Wayne’s The Alamo; another MGM deep catalog title languishing in purgatory? But I digress. Women in Love’s 4K scan was taken directly from restored 35mm original camera negatives, remastered at Deluxe 142 in London, with cinematographer, Billy Williams supervising a meticulous color grading, referenced from his personally archived dye-transfer Technicolor release print, and, a soundtrack remastered in PCM 1.0 mono from original magnetic masters. The results go above and beyond all expectations. Women in Love looks resplendent on Blu-ray with vibrantly saturated colors, exquisite amounts of fine detail and film grain, and, pluperfect contrast levels. Truly, there is nothing to complain about here. For those never having seen it before, you are in for a sincere treat.
Extras are plentiful. We get two independent audio commentaries, both recorded in 2003: one featuring Ken Russell; the other, producer/writer, Larry Kramer. Russell’s is the more comprehensive, but Kramer’s is as enjoyable to listen. From 2007, Russell waxes affectionately about the project for a piece recorded for the BAFTA Archives. From 1976, Glenda Jackson weighs in on her experiences making the movie. Aside: The quality of this vintage excerpt is piss poor at best, suffering from VHS tracking issues and extremely poor sound quality. Given Jackson is still very much with us, and, at 81 years young, extremely vital and outspoken as ever, it is a sincere tragedy her participation could not be secured herein for a more recent interview. We do have two new interviews recorded in 2017, featuring Billy Williams, and, editor, Michael Bradsell, and another vintage puff piece made while the film was still in production, with snippets and sound bites from the entire cast, including the late Oliver Reed (whom we lost in 1999) and Alan Bates (in 2003). Last, but not least: Ken Russell recalls memories from his childhood in a tongue-in-cheek self-made bio short subject: A British Picture – Portrait of an Enfant Terrible, and, Second Best – a portrait of D.H. Lawrence produced by and starring Alan Bates. Bottom line: while the absence of any extras featuring the participation of Glenda Jackson is something of a letdown, Women in Love on Blu-ray is a superb offering, sure to impress. Very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)