Expectations I’ve never been a very big fan of the films of Ken Russell. I’m not in the minority on this issue, either. Critics were generally never fond of Russell’s gaudy, in-your-face hyper-stylization. The British director’s 2011 death sparked a handful of obligatory obituary tributes, but I’m not aware of any passionate reassessments of his body of work or any major theatrical or DVD re-releases of his best-known films. Nor can I say that any of the Russell films I’ve seen really deserve such treatment. Russell’s version of The Who’s rock opera Tommy (1975) is one of the few cases where his sledgehammer style works decently, as it distracts from Pete Townshend’s silly narrative and turns the film into a series of music videos highlighting exciting performances by the likes of Tina Turner and Elton John. More often, Russell’s desire to throw as much random junk at the screen as possible results in unpleasantly chaotic messes like The Boy Friend (1971) or Lair of the White Worm (1988). Presumably Russell wanted to make sure that his audience didn’t get bored, but the unvarying shrieking tone of many of his movies creates its own kind of monotony. If the relentless stylization isn’t annoying enough, Russell often strained to shock with “risqué” subject matter, such as sexualizing a group of nuns in his controversial film The Devils (1971).
Still, there is something weirdly admirable about an artist who is determined to push everything into the red at all times, regardless of how tasteless or stupid it may seem. And so I wind up giving Russell another chance about once a year or so, hoping to find a film where his chosen subject matter meshes with his orgiastic style. Women in Love (1969) is the film that I’m giving a chance this time, and it actually seems like there’s a fairly strong possibility that it will prove to be worthwhile. The D.H. Lawrence adaptation put Russell on the map after a bunch of TV work and a few small-scale features. While Women’s critical legacy has dwindled somewhat in recent years, perhaps due to increasing exhaustion with Russell’s Grand Guignol aesthetic, it was a highly acclaimed and popular film around the time of its release, and it received a number of Oscar nominations (including one for Russell as a director) and one win (a Best Actress nod for Glenda Jackson). Will Women in Love display a reined-in and focused Ken Russell, or at least feature a story that is a good match for his aesthetic? Or will it just be another jumble of ideas? I’m cautiously optimistic that it will at least be interesting.
Responses to the Film Women in Love is indeed restrained and mature by Russell’s standards, perhaps owing to the fact that the project did not originate with him. Producer Larry Kramer was obsessed enough with adapting D.H. Lawrence’s novel to the screen that he wound up writing the screenplay himself after finding the work of several writers he’d hired to be subpar. Considering Kramer’s direct involvement with the creative side of the film’s preproduction, and taking into account the fact that Russell was a relatively unproven filmmaker in 1969 (he was the fourth choice to direct the film after luminaries such as Stanley Kubrick passed on the project), it seems likely that Kramer exercised some level of veto power any time Russell’s ideas became too extreme. That said, Russell’s version of Women in Love is hardly a stuffy period piece, and it does benefit immensely from the director’s exotic touches. Kramer may or may not have reined Russell in to some degree, but the director’s eccentricities are present enough to keep the film interesting even as they are held back enough to not completely overwhelm the story.
While watching Women in Love, I was actually grateful for Russell’s aggressive attempts to make the material more viscerally exciting because, frankly, the narrative of the film is not all that interesting on its own terms. Basically the story, set in 1920s Great Britain, follows the titular women (Jackson and Jennie Linden) as they come into the orbit of a wealthy coal mining magnate (Oliver Reed) and his libertine friend (Alan Bates). What follows includes a lot of ponderous (if sometimes beautifully written) discussions about the nature of love, as well as some scenes of desperately passionate sex. There is a limit to how exciting that kind of story can be in its own terms, but Russell frequently spices things up with his wild stylistic tricks. You wouldn’t necessarily expect a film about bored rich people arguing about the value of love to include multiple spastic dance scenes (including one in front of a herd of Highland cattle), smash cuts linking a pair of fresh corpses to two of the leads embracing tenderly, and a nude wrestling match that seems like a precursor to the unclothed fight scene from David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007), but all of that and more is included in Russell’s crazy vision. For once, though, Russell’s weirdness doesn’t run roughshod over the rest of the film, and the characters are given room to develop rather than being turned into obnoxious, screeching cartoon stereotypes. Though Jackson was the member of the cast generally singled out for praise around the time of the film’s release, all four leads give very strong performances. Russell’s experimental style doesn’t always enhance (or even necessarily sync up with) what the actors are doing, but it doesn’t impede their performances either, and the movie overall strikes a fairly good balance between disciplined storytelling and puckish showboating.
Afterthoughts It’s been almost a week since I watched Women in Love and wrote the preceding paragraphs, and I can’t say that I’ve given much thought to the movie in the interim. The spastic direction and the stately story prevent the film from becoming either a boring period piece or a typical Ken Russell mess, but the two tones don’t really add up to a coherent vision either. There are enough memorable moments and strong performances in Women in Love to make the film a worthwhile experience, but it just doesn’t seem like the filmmakers were all on the same page. Russell’s eccentric stylistic flourishes are often pretty cool on their own terms, but they don’t do much to enhance the movie’s themes or its story, beyond keeping it from getting too dull.
Still, Women in Love is easily the best of the Ken Russell films I’ve seen. Women in Love’s style and its substance don’t entirely coalesce, making the film less emotionally impactful than it was presumably meant to be, but the handsome production values, unexpected formal touches, and all-around solid performances make the movie well worth any cineaste’s time. If nothing else, Women in Love is certainly the most accessible of Ken Russell’s films and a good entry point for anyone who might be interested in looking into his work further. But it didn’t convince me that I’ve been wrong about the limitations of Russell’s aesthetic.