The late Ken Russell’s work was too accomplished to dismiss, but also often too self-indulgent to accept without major reservations. Women in Love, his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel, is probably his most famous film and the most cohesive of those I’ve seen. As such, it is a good measure of his abilities and his failings. On balance, the lively and inventive outweigh his often garish over-reaching. There is nonetheless enough arty strain to demonstrate that even Russell’s best work could be motivated primarily by the desire to shock.
As the title suggests, the film is largely about sex. I haven’t read Lawrence’s novel, so I can’t judge if Russell’s emphasis distorts it. Certainly he stages every heated moment the script provides with a candor bordering on brutality. The film’s nearly tactile sensuousness is its greatest asset. Even the simplest moments are embellished with an extra layer of sensory appeal. Russell apparently wants us to feel the events in purely visceral terms. When Birkin (Alan Bates) has a violent argument with his first lover, Hermione (Eleanor Bron) for instance, it isn’t enough for him to flee into the woods. He has to run through the forest, take off his clothes and clean off his blood and sweat with ferns wet from morning dew.
In depicting anything other than the characters’ lust, however, the outlines are broad and crude. Hermione is such an exaggerated caricature, for example, it is difficult to believe she could function, much less attract and keep Birkin on the hook for more than five seconds. His friend Gerald (Oliver Reed) doesn’t just have trouble with women. His father (Alan Webb) dies horribly, his sister and brother-in-law drown, while his mother (Catherine Willmer) is a borderline psychotic. If all of this is necessary to explain the central relationship in the story, Gerald’s involvement with the emasculating Gudrun Brangwen (Glenda Jackson), it feels more like stacking the deck than emotional understanding.
Aside from some high-flown flatulence about the nature of love, friendship and art, moments in which characters express anything other than their basest instincts are little better than perfunctory. It is as if Russell is marking time until he can get his claws into the scenes that will justify his extravagance. If those moments don’t come quickly enough, he imposes effects impatiently and arbitrarily. Even the sensuality seems less to do with the ability to evoke a time and place than with Russell’s desire to wallow in the violent, the seedy, the grotesque and yes, the pornography of sex. He is not particularly interested in why his characters behave the way they do. Their pathologies are an excuse for his romp.
It is that frenzied, splashy imposition of his obsessions on to the material regardless of their suitability that mars Russell’s work. In the case of Women in Love, there is enough connection between the story and his fixations for the results to remain compelling. Unfortunately, that was not always the case.