There is tremendous pressure when writing about a film as critically acclaimed as Ken Russell’s Women in Love. The pressure is compounded further because it is an adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s controversial 1921 novel. Despite the weight of such historical significance, it’s not difficult to enjoy Russell’s film; instead, it is quite easy to fall in love with it.
Women in Love is sumptuous, both visually and thematically, and boasts impressive and subtle acting. The issues the film addresses — among them capitalism, class struggles and sexual liberation — are as provocative now as they were then. Its characters are complex, confounding and yet completely relatable. Women in Love maintains, despite the passage of nearly 50 years, a thoroughly modern aura.
The title ostensibly refers to the romantic lives of the Brangwen sisters, Ursula (Jennie Linden) and Gudrun (Glenda Jackson, who won an Oscar for her role). They are introduced by discussing whether or not marriage is “the end of experience,” a theme which continues throughout the film. However, as Ken Russell wryly notes in his commentary track, the film could just as easily have been called Men in Love.\
The film gained notoriety for the naked wrestling scene between Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates) and Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed), a metaphor for the way the two men are wrestling with their desires for each other. The scene carries even more significance when considering that the novel was written during a time in England when homosexual activities were a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment. In fact, the decriminalization of homosexual behavior only took place two years before the film was released.
For all of its stimulating philosophical musings on sex and relationships, Women in Love has a somewhat cynical attitude towards love. It could be argued that the only pure romantic relationship depicted in the film is cursed from the start.
The film opens with the Brangwen sisters crashing the wedding between Gerald’s younger sister Laura (Sharon Gurney) and her fiancé Tibby Lupton (Christopher Gable). Tibby arrives late and spies Laura entering the church. Perhaps fearing bad luck, she tries to run inside, but he catches her and they kiss. Yet their union is a happy one. While the four main characters are railing against the confines of what is expected of them, these newlyweds are often in the background, blissfully asleep or passionately entangled.
It comes as a shock, then, when the couple drown whilst skinny dipping in the lake at the Crich estate. The discovery of their naked, entwined bodies is intercut with a scene of Rupert and Ursula having sex for the first time in the grass near that same lake. The connection between sex and death is obvious, but the film offers the idea that love is also a kind of death, at least the kind of conventional love that was considered the ideal of the time period.
Much in the film is conveyed through deliciously meaty dialogue, such as the fig scene at the luncheon, with words taken not from the novel, but from Lawrence’s poem “Figs.” However, Women in Love also offers a bounty of visual cues which give viewers even more to chew on. The opening scenes show the Brangwen sisters dressed in vibrant, stylish outfits which greatly contrast the bus full of soot-covered miners in their industrial town. At another point in the film, Gerald and his father are seen riding away from the coal mine they own in a polished, cream-colored convertible, surrounded by the same kinds of soot-covered folks who were riding on that bus. Such scenes present clashes between classes in their most obvious forms.
To modern audiences accustomed to dialogue that is more casual, Women in Love might seem overwrought. Then again, its main characters are young people struggling to find out where they fit in the world, while also trying to reshape the world to fit their desires. As such, the seemingly abrupt ending of the film (and the original text) is in keeping with this struggle.
Ursula insists that one cannot have two kinds of love, meaning the love of a wife and the love of a man. Rupert responds with “I don’t believe that.” The camera cuts to Ursula’s shocked face and the film ends, leaving the audience with an open-ended proposition, a conflict in belief systems that will never be settled. This perfectly befits a film featuring characters that are never truly satisfied asking questions that can never truly be answered.
The special features on this Criterion release are stellar. There are two commentary tracks, both recorded in 2003. One features Ken Russell while the other is from screenwriter/producer Larry Kramer. Russell’s self-directed 1989 biopic A British Picture: Portrait of an Enfant Terrible is also included. There are several interviews with members of the cast and crew recorded at different times: Ken Russell (2007), Glenda Jackson (1976); Larry Kramer, Jennie Linden and Alan Bates (from the set of the film); and finally, cinematographer Billy Williams and editor Michael Bradsell (recorded for this release). Second Best, a 1972 short film based on a D. H. Lawrence story produced by and starring Alan Bates is included as is the trailer for Women in Love. The release also contains an essay on the film from scholar Linda Ruth Williams.
Leslie Hatton (@popshifter) is a Fannibal, an animal lover, a music maven and a horror movie junkie. She created and managed Popshifter from 2007 – 2017, and also contributes to Biff Bam Pop, Diabolique Magazine, Everything Is Scary, Modern Horrors, Rue Morgue and more.