Women In Love Review

I only want us to know what we are
D. H. Lawrence, “Women In Love”

When you read D. H. Lawrence’s “Women In Love”, you get the feeling that your life is changing as you turn the pages. Art is often described as a transfigurative process but with Lawrence’s, the sense of a radical consciousness burning off the page into your soul is so vivid that it can be overpowering. Pouring all of himself into the novel, he explicitly repudiates the certainties of his previous novel about the Brangwen family, “The Rainbow”, and poses questions about love and existence which he can’t hope to answer but which stick in the reader’s mind and can, if the reader is sufficiently receptive, change their view of themselves. This ceaseless searching for a knowledge of the self and a pure love which transcends traditional notions of sex and marital union suffuses the book with a restlessness and a philosophical questioning which, to my mind, can clearly be seen as the cradle of Modernism. If the book isn’t the greatest novel of the 20th Century – a judgement which is subjective but which to which I would assent – then it’s certainly one of the most important; taking the Victorian industrial novel and combining it with a Hardyesque study of sexual relationships and personal morality, Lawrence creates something radically new and endlessly influential.

Given how important and brilliant the novel is, it’s no surprise that Ken Russell’s film Women In Love is essentially a failure as an adaptation for reasons that are immediately clear. Although Russell films the narrative with surprising fidelity, he omits the political and psychological complexity of the original with such completeness that one can only suspect that he, and the writer Larry Kramer, were not particularly interested in anything except the more sensational elements of the plot. Given that plot – in the Dickensian sense of the word - isn’t what makes Lawrence a great writer, there’s a huge amount of Lawrence missing in the film. To be fair, when Russell gets it right then he gets it dead on target but too often the words on the page have been translated into cinema but the spirit and psychology of the novel have been ignored.

It’s perhaps too much to ask that Russell and Kramer should have caught the entire scope of the novel. Lawrence is writing not only about sex but also about politics and the social context within which heterosexual sex and love increasingly prove to be inadequate to fulfil a person’s spiritual needs. The novel was written in 1916 and the sense of a world in chaos is abundant. Rupert Birkin (Bates), the school inspector who becomes involved with the young schoolteacher Ursula Brangwen (Linden), speaks of England sailing down “a river of dissolution” and it is this fatalistic view of the world that motivates him to look for a satisfaction beyond sexual fulfilment. It’s this which leads him towards a relationship with local mine owner Gerald Crich (Reed), a friendship which Birkin hopes will be “an eternal union with a man”, the thing he needs to make himself complete. Crich himself is a man caught between 19th Century notions of servitude and the philanthropy of the rich and 20th Century assertions of the rights of the working man. His sense of himself is frustratingly incomplete and he needs to submit to a strong woman but, somehow, his self-hating relationship with the dominant Gudrun Brangwen (Jackson) is never quite enough and he ends up impotent and despairing. This is but a précis of the psychological complexity of the characters, all of whom possess inner lives which would each make an individual novel in themselves.

Somehow, Ken Russell and Larry Kramer can’t get this across. The characters become ciphers with one strong identifying facet. Gudrun comes across as a castrating proto-feminist whose own dissatisfaction with the world is never addressed properly. Gerald seems like a sadistic bore whose essential tragedy, based on a lack of self-knowledge, isn’t evoked. When he and Gudrun get together, the eventual tragedy should be a foregone conclusion – Gerald has abandoned himself into “oneness with the whole”, not realising that this woman has neither the capability nor the inclination to be his Isis. But Russell never makes us believe this could be possible – largely because the sexual union between them, which should be an apocalyptic clash of hopelessly mismatched personalities rather than a fulfilment , is simply bed-shakingly orgasmic. The casting doesn’t really help. Oliver Reed is a very strong presence as Gerald Crich but his sullen glare is allowed to become the entire character. Glenda Jackson is technically brilliant as Gudrun and in the early scenes she seems to be getting at something of Gudrun’s “violent, active superconsciousness” – as in the moment when she is both repelled and aroused by Gerald’s torturing of his horse at the passing train. But we never feel we know her and we never get a sense of her final, small but definitely triumphant “kick at misery” that we do in the book. Alan Bates is fine as Birkin the Schoolmaster but he is more prissy than philosophical and there’s never a moment when we believe that this mild little man might actually be looking for “stellar polarity” in his relationships with Ursula and Gerald. As for Jennie Linden’s Ursula, one shouldn’t be cruel about a actress who is hopelessly in over her head and I’m sure that she did exactly what the director asked of her. But Ursula needs to be as strong and well defined as Gudrun and here she’s got all the assertion of a dead fish.

Things get worse with the minor characters. The key figure of Hermione Roddice – a woman who “seemed almost drugged, as if a strange mass of thoughts coiled up in the darkness within her and she was never allowed to escape” – is turned into a grotesque parody of a free spirit. Eleanor Bron isn’t miscast in the part but she is misdirected and misinterpreted – much as happened with the characters of Madame Von Meck and Count Chiluvsky in The Music Lovers. The figure of Hermione in the story isn’t simply a tasteless aesthete who puts on appalling masques and lolls about without a care for anyone but herself. She is an inwardly directed, essentially selfish woman who cannot possibly satisfy Rupert’s need for spiritual union – and this is one of the key things which pushes him away and into the arms of the considerably more outward looking Ursula. Other characters, such as Thomas Crich, Gerald’s father (beautifully played by Alan Webb) are simplified to the point of barely existing any more. Thomas represents the industrial past and a self-deluding attempt to conjoin Christian egalitarianism with Capitalism and he is one of the things that Gerald reacts against. In the film he’s just a nice, somewhat doddery old bloke who believes in being nice to his workforce. Similarly, Gerald’s mother comes across as a simple harridan who doesn’t like beggars. If you’ve read the book, you’ll understand that this is largely a reaction against her husband to whom she is silently and resentfully submissive – Lawrence describes her thus; “She was consumed in a fierce tension of opposition like the negative pole of a magnet” – and she sees the beggars as the personification of her hatred of Thomas – “It seemed to her as if her husband were some subtle funeral bird, feeding on the miseries of the people.” A whole scene is set up simply to show how much she despises beggars but Russell never even hints at the reason why. Whole pages of the book are taken up with character history and motivation. Obviously, a film can’t do justice to this but it can make an attempt at complexity. Russell doesn’t even try.

Time and time again, Lawrence is vulgarised and simplified. Since Rupert’s interest in Gerald is only vaguely alluded to, the famous nude wrestling match comes across as a homo-erotic set piece rather than a development of character. For one thing, it comes earlier in the film than in the novel and without the context of Rupert’s disastrous proposal to Ursula, his sudden desire to physicalise his feelings through violence doesn’t make much sense. Nor is it made clear that he does have a physical attraction to Gerald who seems “a piece of pure, final substance” compared to Rupert who is “more a presence than a visual object”. At the end of the wrestling in the film he says “At least, one feels freer and more open now” and then talks about how his relationship with Ursula will lead to engagement and then marriage. But the whole point of the scene should be that Rupert’s attempts to propose (by first asking Ursula’s father in a scene of exquisite embarrassment) have knocked him back and given him such a negative sense of traditional love between a man and a woman that he’s looking for something which will actually work. This explains why he says to Crich, “I don’t believe I’ve ever felt as much love for a woman as I have for you – not love.”

All of which leads me to the conclusion that what makes Lawrence a great writer is basically unfilmable and the unwise filmmaker must therefore find their own way through the material. Jack Cardiff managed quite well in Sons and Lovers, largely because the casting of Wendy Hiller and Trevor Howard was so perfect. But Lawrence has otherwise eluded successful adaptation and Russell’s literalist style doesn’t work, no matter how much his sense of sexuality is in sympathy with the writer. Sometimes, Russell’s images have a hypnotic visual intensity which works beautifully but they only work on their own terms. If you’ve never read the book then you will probably come to the conclusion that this is basically a kind of Andrea Newman high-class soap opera about good and bad sex.

Considered purely as a piece of filmmaking, Women In Love has considerable merit. Russell’s images are memorable even if their dramatic context is missing – I especially like the mingling of the image of the drowned newlyweds with the entwined bodies of Rupert and Ursula. Occasionally, he finds a visual equivalent for Lawrence’s prose – notably the final scenes of Gerald in the snow and the incident when Gudrun dances with the cattle. The cinematography by the great Billy Williams is constantly breathtaking, particularly during the night of the disastrous water party, and Georges Delerue’s music score is ideal. I especially like the various settings of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”. However, the pacing of the film seems off. Once the scene moves to Switzerland, the narrative loses impetus and Russell takes an unconscionable time to get through the last fifty pages of the book.

For much of the time, the film leaves you in no doubt that Ken Russell is a real filmmaker and the reputation that he gained as a visual stylist is largely deserved. He also did a good deal during the 1960s and 1970s to keep alive the Powell-Pressburger tradition of a primarily visual cinema. But Ken Russell’s Women In Love tries to be an adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love and falls far short of simply being not good enough. Without the enormous complexity and keen insight of the novel, what remains doesn’t make a great deal of sense and tends to leave you wondering why Russell bothered adapting it in the first place when he could clearly do something of his own which would be far more effective.

The Disc

The Region 1 edition of Women In Love contained an excellent commentary from Ken Russell and a nicely remastered transfer of the film. In Region 2 we get a similarly decent transfer but the commentary has gone AWOL. This is part of a recent MGM trend of getting rid of the extras on Region 2 and it’s simply not good enough.

The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of roughly 1.66:1 and has not been anamorphically enhanced. Although this is disappointing, the transfer is generally very good. Colours are gorgeously full and rich, black are well defined and deep and there is plenty of detail to the image. Some print damage is evident throughout, largely in the form of small scratches, but this is otherwise quite pleasing.

The soundtracks are all in the original mono and present no problems whatsoever. Delerue’s music score sounds particularly pleasing and dialogue is crisp and clear.

No extras are present on the disc and the menus are presented as slightly confusing icons. There are 16 chapter stops.

Although I’ve been heavily critical of Women In Love, I still recommend it as worth a look for the quality of the visual filmmaking. But I would also suggest reading the book in order to provide a corrective to what Russell seems to think it’s all about. The DVD is technically adequate but the absence of the Region 1 extras is unnecessarily penny-pinching.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 12:17:50

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