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Spotlight November 1999

Women In Love

North American DVD release on 4 March 03.
The disk includes a widescreen print, the theatrical trailer,
and commentaries by director Ken Russell and producer Larry Kramer.

Alan Bates, D.H. Lawrence's counterpart in
both philosophy and physical likeness, is at his best
in a vivid display of lighthearted cynicism...

DIRECTOR KEN Russell has frequently been referred to as "The enfant terrible of films," due to the sexual and religious audacity of his movies ("Valentino," "The Devils") and the unparalleled irreverence with which he has tackled film biographies of such musical giants as Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Mahler. Although his outright musicals ("Tommy," "The Boy Friend") have won somewhat more critical approval than his fact-based movies, one Russell effort stands quite alone, in both subject matter (a D. H. Lawrence novel) and public approval -- the 1969 "Women in Love." This is a quite faithful adaptation, by the film's producer, Larry Kramer, of Lawrence's 1920 novel about the complexities two diverse young English couples encounter in their expression of love and friendship.
To date, Ken Russell hasn't made a better movie than "Women in Love," a fact which he characteristically disputes. With reference to the critics who have treated his output with increasing severity, Russell says, "'Women in Love' was easier for them. It was literal and had just the right amount of violence and erotic things in it. But I don't think it was as good as the others."

- Stormy Liaison -

The film's structure is necessarily episodic and fragmentary. In the Midlands mining town of Beldover, two sisters, Gudrun and Ursula, are courted and won by Gerald, a wealthy young coal-mine owner, and Rupert, a school inspector and Gerald's best friend. While Rupert and Ursula enter into a tender, positive love affair, Gerald and Gudrun weather a far stormier liaison. But Rupert despairs over his need for another sort of affection, and he and Gerald attempt to come to terms with their friendship in a naked wrestling match. Gerald is disturbed by doubts about his inability to maintain any personal relationships outside his machine-centered mining world and, while Rupert marries Ursula, Gerald's turbulent affair with her sister threatens to destroy them both.
When the two couples go to Switzerland on a holiday, the situation culminates in tragedy. Gudrun dallies with Loerke, a bisexual German sculptor, and Gerald, after attempting to strangle her, wanders blindly off into the snow -- and a frigid end to his torment. Rupert and Ursula return to England, where he grieves for his dead friend and the inadequacy of the male-female relationship.
D. H. Lawrence offers "Women in Love's"readers pungent food for thought, and Larry Kramer's reverent adaptation retains a great deal of the Lawrence blend of romantic subtlety and complex sensuality. Ken Russell employs larger-than-life stylishness and a ripe visual flair to make "Women in Love" an unforgettable motion picture, from the initial shock of its notorious male nude scene, through displays of then-daring sexual frankness, to the awful discovery of Gerald's frozen body. Considering the story's basic content, perhaps one can credit producer-writer Kramer with keeping Russell's direction free f the excesses that marred his subsequent, offensive-to-many "The Devils" and "The Music Lovers."

- Near-Perfect Cast -

At the head of "Women in Love's" near-perfect cast are, of course, the quartet of lovers, complex characters all, therefore requiring actors of resource, talent and imagination. Alan Bates, the author's counterpart in both philosophy and physical likeness, is at his best in a vivid display of lighthearted cynicism. Jennie Linden, resembling a felicitous blend of Joanne Woodward, Diane Keaton and Debbie Reynolds, brings beauty, intelligence and a surprising effectiveness to Ursula, the less aggressive sister. Oliver Reed's customary sullen intensity and earthy, macho strength suit Gerald well and underline his cruelty to those he loves -- or tries to love. But it is Glenda Jackson, heretofore known outside of Britain solely for her characterization of Charlotte Corday in the stage and screen editions of "Marat/Sade," who takes the slight edge in acting honors. No beauty, in terms of seductive facade, Jackson sufficiently combines brains, articulation and thespian artistry in this movie to make of Gudrun a cold and glitteringly neurotic bitch who quite literally destroys her lover, Gerald. The actress plays with punch and vitality, and always there is that shining intelligence which transfixes her audience. This performance accomplished the unusual by winning both a Best Actress Oscar and the New York Film Critics Award.

- Haunting and Memorable -

In lesser roles, Eleanor Bron stands out as Hermione, the bizarre and phony socialite who resents losing Rupert to Ursula, and Vladek Sheybal is fascinatingly repulsive in the Martin Kosleck tradition -- as Loerke, whose presence at the Swiss resort proves the back-breaking straw for Gerald.
Larry Kramer's production is an extremely handsome one, with Luciana Arrighi's authentic-looking sets cleverly offset by a cunning choice of Swiss and English locations. Shirley Russell, the director's wife and the designer of costumes for all of his extravagant films, brings an ugly historical era (the late teens) back to charming life.
For the story it has to tell, "Women in Love" seems unnecessarily long at 130 minutes, but the Kramer-Russell collaboration is so artful as to hold a viewer's attention with the sensual flavor of Lawrence and a well-sifted simplification of his tangled thoughts on human relationships. In its unique fashion, "Women in Love" is as haunting and memorable a movie as that vintage song that backs its opening credits and sets the ironic mood and period: "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles." |||

From "The Great British Films," Citadel, ©1978, Jerry Vermilye.

"Women in Love" has proved to be the sort of landmark film that forces its stars to comment forever after. Bates has spoken about "Women in Love" for publication as recently as a couple of months ago, in the Sunday Telegraph. Here are further reflections, over the years:

From "Magill's Survey of Cinema," © 1995:

A justly-famous scene epitomizes the style and manner of the film. At an outdoor gathering including Hermione, Rupert, Gerald, Ursula, and Gudrun, all are sitting on white chairs around a white table. Their summer clothes are predominantly white, but are set off by the bright colors of Ursula's dress and Gerald's jacket as well as the green of the grass and trees behind them. In this carefully composed setting Hermione begins to eat a fig, inspiring Rupert to deliver a poetic discourse on the fig, dwelling on its sexual implications. Director Russell uses many close-ups to concentrate on Rupert's speech and the silent reactions of those around the table. The scene is compelling to both the eye and the ear as well as appropriate to the character of Rupert and the eroticism of the film. (Although not in the novel, Rupert's speech is taken from a poem by Lawrence. |||

From George Hickenlooper's exclusive interview with Ken Russell for "Image Entertainment," packaged with a special edition of the laser disc:

GH: "Women in Love" is still praised as one of your best films. Why do you think it stands above the others?

KR: "To me it doesn't, but we probably shouldn't say that. It may be okay in itself, but trying to get a six hundred page novel into two hours is a real problem. It has some very good performances in it and it was very outspoken about relationships. I hope that I went into them in depth much more than most other films had done by that time." |||

From An Autobiography of British Cinema interview date: November, 1995 © Brian McFarlane, 1997:

BM: You did another film version of a great novel at the end of the decade, Woman in Love, which still seems the best film ever made from a Lawrence novel and one of the best British films ever. How do you rate it?

AB: I rate it like that too. I thought it was extraordinary when I read the book; I thought, why are we attempting this? It's too complex; it's too dense. But Ken Russell somehow understood what to take from that book to make it work on the screen and the film has a wonderful understanding of the book. I think it was slightly excessive here and there but, apart from that, the whole thing was a wonderful reflection of the spirit of the book.

BM: The thing that seems most daring about it isn't, say, the nude scenes, but how much discussion there is in it. I wondered what you thought about the film on this level.

AB: The discussions were cut down to an accessible state, I think. I think Lawrence is accessible, I don't think he's obscure. He's symbolic, but I think it's so basic, what he is actually talking about, that it comes through quite clearly. It's based greatly on the physical -- the sensual attitude to the physical presence, if you like. I think people are immediately drawn to try and understand themselves through the sensual. He seems to be able to touch on things that most people are perhaps obsessed with, or at least concerned with. And those fundamental basic relationships between men and women, between women and women, and between men and men: he understood them all.

BM: The film caused some censorship uproar at the time. Was the nudity a worrying thing for filming, especially the famous wrestling scene?

AB: We knew that it was a very unusual step to take. It was written and directed with great skill -- it did just catch that area in which Lawrence was expressing that feeling of friendship and frustration through a sort of sense of combat, through the physical -- it's the animal in us, in a way. Whatever sexual overtone it has is not actually stressed and it's not even probably meant to be. I've always regarded it as a sort of sensual expression of friendship rather than a sexual one. |||

From "Reflections," Alan Bates interviewed by Gordon Gow, Films and Filming, June 1971 © 1971 by Hansom Books:

GG: Three films later, of course, Bates and Oliver Reed were presented in frontal nudity for the wrestling by firelight in Ken Russell's "Women in Love."

AB: "Originally it was scripted in a different way. Larry Kramer, who wrote the screenplay, had taken the scene and set it outside -- I don't quite know why he did that -- and somehow it just didn't ring true. And then Oliver or somebody who knew him, said that the scene ought really to be the way it was in the book -- and that was right, for the wrestling and a lot of other things too: we went back to the book constantly. The run through the woods, for instance. I did that straight out of the book. I'm not saying that Larry hadn't taken it from the book, but one needed to read that chapter in the book again -- and I've always been a great reader of Lawrence. And the run and the wrestling were really what Lawrence was all about. Physical contact. Contact with the earth, contact with the ground, contact with each other -- expressed physically, not only sexually. The point of discussion about that fight is -- yes, it's got sexual undertones, but it's first and foremost a physical contact, as an expression of need or of friendship. A need to expand yourself. The reason they fight is because each of them is in a particular extreme state in his life. They both lived in a very constricted society. And to me that kind of explosion, although it's got an intellectual side to it too, is a natural thing. It's extreme, but it's not unnatural."

"... it couldn't be more natural -- to have no clothes on."

GG: The wrestling would presumably have been shot under customary studio conditions, without the gathering of onlookers who had to be braved by Bates on the location for "Le Roi de Coeur." The naked run, culminating in a fairly erotic role on the ground, was filmed outdoors but could have been filmed with a minimum number of crew members. In both cases, however, it was inevitable that a few jaunty quips would be bandied about in the course of preparation for shooting.

AB: "Getting rid of inhibitions is not my hang-up. It's just the sense that you're the only one person in a group of people (however small the group) who is naked while the others aren't. You can forget the camera because you don't see the result for months. Not completely, anyway. At rushes, you see yourself suddenly while you sit in a little theatre with some shocked publicity people, or whoever. But while you're filming, it's all right so long as you are convinced it's being done for a good reason in the right context. The wisecracks on the set can be useful, to break the tension -- because there is an automatic tension of people being very respectful ... not looking, you know. That in itself creates an atmosphere which needs to be broken. Christ, it couldn't be more natural -- to have no clothes on." |||

From Alan Bates: An Actor Who Prefers To Be Anonymous, by Peter Buckley, SHOW (the magazine of films and the arts) May, 1972, © 1972 by H&R Publications, Inc:

PB: Women In Love he was not only playing against the odds, he was playing it in the raw.

AB: "Yes, I suppose it was the first time you actually got to see the actual star's actual organs. Such a big deal. We didn't think too much about it before we came to the wrestling scene -- it was there in the script and I suppose we thought 'when it happens, it will just happen and that will be that,' but of course it wasn't. It never is. When we shot the scene, it was fine -- it hurt, but it was okay -- but the rushes, oh my God. Sitting there day after day after day staring up at yourself hanging out all over that screen in glowing color. You only get to see a few moments of it in the film, just a flash, but we saw hours of it. It seemed to go on forever, and it was tortuous. I thought at the time that it all looked so -- well, so wrong, and I looked so hideous, but there wasn't anything I could do. That was me up there and that was all there was to it. I suppose it's a great lesson in humility. If you can get over the awfulness of yourself in the flesh, you can get over anything.

AB: "I was slightly nervous about the reaction when the film was shown -- after all, this was the first time that a big commercial film concentrated so heavily on those particular areas of the star's anatomy -- I mean, one could finally put a face on those genitals, couldn't one -- but then when it came out, hardly anyone paid any attention to the wrestling scene. In fact some of the love scenes did come under attack as being too sensuous, but people seemed to accept the stark nudity without too much shock. If you present it outright and straightforward, it's reasonable and nobody's offended; it's when you cover up and get sneaky about it all that you upset them. My worst fears were about my mother's reaction -- that I really dreaded -- but it never bothered her in the least."

PB: One of the main reasons that the explicit nudity in Women In Love never offended anyone -- not even Mrs. Bates -- is that one was totally conscious throughout that the naked male in question was a well balanced, humane individual, not a degenerate on any level, and that no matter how much he ranted, raved and randied, he was basically a nice guy. And that is Alan Bates more than anything else; in and out of character, he is nice. One winces at the thought of charisma, but it's easy to see why he is so respected, admired and well thought of. Friendly, open, natural, unhung-up and easy, and in the best possible way, nice, and he can't quite shake it. Not that we'd ever want him to. |||