1921, the English Midlands, and there is to be a wedding today, between the local mine owner’s daughter and a soldier, and it is set to be a grand occasion, though the groom will be late. Two of the couple's friends are sisters, Gudrun (Glenda Jackson) and Ursula (Jennie Linden), and against their parents' wishes they are not going to stick around at home to meet their aunt who will be visiting for the first time in years, they prefer to be at the wedding, where after the ceremony each of them allow their gaze to alight upon two best friends, Rupert (Alan Bates) and Gerald (Oliver Reed). This sends them both into a reverie of remembering, since they both feel they could very well settle down with those men, though at this stage in their lives they wonder if that could be akin to closing themselves down to experience...
Director Ken Russell's adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's celebrated novel was devoted to elevating the sensual to the highest form of gratification humanity could achieve, making them at one with nature yet also able to intellectualise about their feelings and aspirations. This was much of the reason behind the mixed reception Women in Love received, both as a book and then around forty years later as a film, for there were those who felt that giving in to such sensations was foolish at best and selfish at worst, though in Russell's favour he appeared aware that there was a note of the ridiculous in this work, and even that it was intentional though the more sincere examination of lifting the veil on male/female and male/male relationships was ever-present.
There was a point in British filmmaking around the mid-nineteen-sixties to the early seventies where directors left the studios behind (mostly) and took their cameras out into the countryside, just as the hippy movement was evolving into a health kick that implored humanity to get back to nature, and Women in Love was part of that under the guise of a literary tribute, with humanity the ideal combination of the environment and what is manmade, be that industrial or intellectual. Therefore a number of sequences were set in rural locations, actually taken from around England wherever they could capture the best-looking scenery available, yet there were additionally scenes where the characters would wholeheartedly embrace the natural world, literally as they rolled about in long grass, clasped branches to their naked bodies, or swam in stretches of water to truly feel at one with the world about them.
This has been a stumbling block for audiences and critics alike not willing to go with that kind of sincerity, and Russell felt very strongly about the power of flora, fauna and the elements which you can tell from watching his work, rarely more so than here. Rather than following on from his Harry Palmer series entry Billion Dollar Brain, this felt more of a piece with the television productions at the BBC that had made his name, recreating the lives of those with artistic temperaments who had enjoyed success in their chosen area. But there was one part Russell could show here that he couldn’t on the small screen, or rather a few parts as this was one of the first mainstream works to depict sex scenes and nudity from the stars of the show, though Glenda Jackson was not a celebrity when she won her Oscar-securing role, while Jennie Linden mysteriously failed to capitalise on this worldwide success.
That said, Alan Bates and Oliver Reed were not exactly global megastars either though they had done well enough to headline their own movies in the sixties, so if anything was demonstrated here it was the manner in which a nude scene could get the public talking about you, and here were the first examples. These days it's impossible to mention Women in Love without reference to Bates and Reed getting their kit off for their naked wrestling scene, at once absurd yet also very relevant to the understanding of their roles, for Rupert and Gerald in another era would have been a very content romantic couple. The sadness of that is, they cannot admit that (the play-fighting is as close to intimacy as they can get) and therefore choose to pursue the two sisters who are too strong-willed to ever really satisfy them, so you can see Lawrence was placing male comradeship on a pedestal above the love between men and women. In truth, it was difficult to discern from this film whether we were supposed to agree with that or take a step back and assess the players from a more scientific angle, but whichever appealed to you would prove diverting if you immersed yourself in this troubled but superficially attractive realm. Music by George Delerue.
[OK, here are the abundant extras on the BFI Blu-ray:
New 4K restoration by the BFI National Archive
•Original theatrical trailer
•Billy Williams OBE BSC in conversation with Phil Méheux BSC (2015, 49 mins): in-depth interview with the Oscar winning cinematographer
•Audio commentary with director Ken Russell
•Audio commentary with writer and producer Larry Kramer
•Second Best (Stephen Dartnell, 1972, 27 mins): previously unreleased short film starring Alan Bates based on the short story by D H Lawrence
•The Guardian Lecture: Glenda Jackson interviewed at the National Film Theatre (1982, 77 mins, audio only)
•The Pacemakers: Glenda Jackson (1971, 14 mins): a documentary profile in which the actress speaks of her performance in Women in Love
•Stills and Collections gallery
•Illustrated booklet with new writing by Michael Brooke, Paul Sutton and Vic Pratt, and full film credits.
It was trips to the cinema with his mother that made British director, writer and producer Ken Russell a lifelong film fan and this developed into making his own short films. From there, he directed dramas on famous composers for the BBC, and was soon making his own features.
After the seventies, which he ended with the biopic Valentino, his popularity declined somewhat with Altered States suffering production difficulties and later projects difficult to get off the ground. Nevertheless, he directed Crimes of Passion, Gothic, Salome's Last Dance, cult horror Lair of the White Worm and The Rainbow in the eighties, but the nineties and beyond saw more erratic output, with many short films that went largely unseen, although a UK TV series of Lady Chatterley was a success. At the age of 79 he appeared on reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother but walked out after a few days. Russell was one of Britain's most distinctive talents, and his way of going passionately over the top was endearing and audacious, while he rarely lost sight of his stories' emotional aspects.