Women in Love (1969) starring Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed
What’s it about?
The Brangwen sisters Gudrun (Glenda Jackson) and Ursula (Jennie Linden) live together in a Yorkshire colliery town between the two World Wars. One day, when they are attending the local wedding of wealthy young Thomas Crich (Alan Webb) to his bride Laura (Sharon Gurney), they lay eyes on two attractive men: school inspector Rupert (Alan Bates) who is already hitched to affluent heiress Hermione (Eleanor Bron), and Thomas’s brother Gerald (Oliver Reed), a coal mine boss.
Soon the wistful and sensual Rupert starts to fall for Ursula himself, straining his financially luxurious but ultimately passionless marriage to Hermione. The plucky and feisty Gudrun meanwhile uses her will to gradually seduce and tame the savage beast that is Gerald. However, while they do get their men, the course of love - as ever - doesn’t run as smoothly as planned.
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Why is it significant?
This D.H. Lawrence adaptation was a major critical and box office hit at the time. It was nominated for 4 Academy Awards and won one: Best Actress for Glenda Jackson. It was also nominated for 11 BAFTAs. While it isn’t Ken Russell’s first film it is widely considered to be the one that firmly put him on the cinematic map in terms of both delighting more adventurous film critics and baiting the censors.
How does it hold up?
While Women In Love may not be my personal favourite of Ken Russell’s films, I can still appreciate why it has been so well-received. Russell wholeheartedly abandons any notions of dry, staid reverence to reading out the text in favour of blossoming out into a primal sensual experience that explores the notion of sexual love as a force of nature.
Nature itself is featured heavily in all of its forms as both symbolism and as a vessel to carry the story forward. The blending in of dance and poetry turns the whole thing into a purely pagan love rite. When Gudrun dances towards an encroaching herd of bulls, she metastasises her own ability to weaken the bullish Gerald and hence bring him under her spell. Rupert’s naked traipsing and brushing against tree bark and amongst heads of wheat reflects his own desire to touch on the essence of sensuality after his violent flight from the lavish home of Hermione. His introduction of the vaginal nature of the fig to young Ursula is a metaphor for his own attempts to introduce her to the sexual world. When the two married lovers from the start of the film abruptly drown in a river by their home it brings home how these same elemental forces can both bring love and, on the other side of the coin, carry it to its doom.
Ken Russell baiting the censors
Russell’s visual style sits quite squarely in a remarkable place somewhere between the oil painting and the mushroom dream. The stateliness and tranquillity of picturesque rural walks regularly cedes into wildly skewed camerawork and wordless, noise-encrusted delirium. And then… there’s that censor-baiting nude wrestle between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates by the fire. A rather obvious metaphor for a latent homosexual communion between the pair, it was rejected by the BBFC on its initial pass. When Russell submitted it a second time he explained to the censors that he had darkened the shot to make the nudity less visible, despite submitting it in exactly the same manner as it was originally examined. It passed through that time - a fact that in itself points to the imagery’s potency on a suggestive/subliminal level more than an actual explicit one.
The performances are fine throughout - the highlights being Glenda Jackson’s startling mix of control and spontaneity that defines her character, and Reed’s sense of a barrel-chested manliness that barely conceals how vulnerable his persona truly is. Bates is the showiest and most theatrical of the lot; more or less a bohemian who likes to express and expand himself. Jennie Linden is perhaps the weakest (and certainly the least known) of the four main players but does convince as a rather petulant and naively romantic character.
While Women In Love arguably isn’t as great a film as some suggest - it’s overlong and somewhat waffly on occasion - its sense of cinema as a means to transport and express is undeniable.
Runtime: 131 mins
Dir: Ken Russell
Script: Larry Kramer, from a novel by D.H. Lawrence
Starring: Alan Bates, Oliver Reed, Glenda Jackson, Jennie Linden, Eleanor Bron, Alan Webb, Sharon Gurney, Vladek Sheybal, Michael Gough