The New European: Still wrestling with Women in Love

Fifty years after its release, Sophia Deboick revisits a movie classic and finds a sometimes troubling film that is often misrepresented.

Unleashed onto an unsuspecting public 50 years ago this autumn, Women in Love changed British cinema forever. Its director, Ken Russell, was launched as the new enfant terrible of the silver screen, while Glenda Jackson emerged as a peerless film actress. Based on D. H. Lawrence’s story of the emancipated Brangwen sisters, Gudrun (Jackson) and Ursula (Jennie Linden), and their respective relationships with domineering mining heir Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed) and idealistic school inspector Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates), the film saw the quartet negotiating intimacy and battling their psychosexual neuroses against the backdrop of an oppressive, industrialising post-First World War British society. While the film earned Oscar nominations for its screenplay, direction and cinematography, Jackson won the award for Best Actress for one of the performances of her life.

WiL 2Women in Love is famed for its naked wrestling scene – the first instance of full frontal male nudity in the history of mainstream cinema – its notoriety only enhanced by Reed’s chat show tales of the vodka-fuelled competitiveness with Alan Bates over the size of their respective ‘John Thomases’.

The film became a byword for eroticism, the unvoiced homosexual attraction between the two men its binding thread (Russell would later comment that it could easily have been called Men in Love). Yet, revisiting Women in Love half a century after its release reveals that Russell’s reputation as a lumpen vulgarian was undeserved from the start, and for all the accusations of phallocentricism (far from unknown in Russell’s oeuvre, to be fair), Jackson’s performance as Gudrun – a woman of complete steel – and the lush cinematography, which celebrates nature and the nakedness in equal measure, is what still impresses 50 years on…

The New European, 14 November 2019, pp. 38-39.

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