'Women In Love' was Ken Russell's first big cinematic success, and its rapturous critical and commercial reception gave him a licence him to develop his directorial voice (for better or worse) in a fairly comfortable and supportive environment for several years. Russell and D.H Lawrence just seem to fit together, somehow - Lawrence provides believable characters, dialogue and a narrative arc which Russell respects enough to play straight, but also lots of fervid and hyperbolically sensual scenes where Ken can go a little bit mad, whether its a naked Alan Bates rubbing himself with grass, Glenda Jackson being chased by cows or, perhaps most infamously of all, Bates and Ollie Reed stripping off and having an erotically charged mano a mano wrestling match.
I had to study the source novel at O, A and Degree level, so I'm not going to linger on its merits as a piece of fiction. It's pretty bloody good, though and, crucially for the late sixties audience, has a frank and daring approach to the key issues of love and sex as Lawrence uses fiction to work through the things that govern his life and both repress and liberate him. In Russell's hands, all this is conveyed subtly (yes, subtly) and rather beautifully: it's a hugely lyrical film which brilliantly conveys Lawrence's eye for the mystical amongst the commonplace - transcendental moments of love and understanding and physical passion, made all the more special by taking place in the fairly grim milieu of the industrial Midlands.
In a film about relationships the strongest love affair is a platonic one between the bohemian school inspector Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates) and the intense industrialist Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed). Both men are looking for something beyond their relationships with sisters Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, and see in each other the potential for a friendship which will make them both whole - but they're English, of course, and nominally heterosexual, so they have no idea how to achieve this ideal, instead scrapping and rolling around in the buff in front of a fire in lieu of the spiritual connection they both crave.
It's a film full of brilliant (and brilliantly directed) performances, particularly from Reed, Bates and Glenda Jackson as the inscrutable Gudrun, just starting to come into her own as an offbeat and fantastically sexy female lead.
The film's final scenes are set in the Alps. Gerald, at the end of his relationship with Gudrun, tries to throttle her, but stops himself just in time and, instead, sets out to kill himself. He walks for miles, higher and higher up into the mountains, before meekly laying down on the snow and slowly freezing to death. It's a poignant and fascinating way to go, brilliantly realised by the slow zoom out of Ken's camera. I always wonder if Lawrence had the death of Captain Oates in mind (the book is set around the time of Captain Scott's expedition), another Edwardian gentlemen with strange passions and ideals who, all hope gone, also laid down his life in the frozen wastes.