1970 / Best Director

Film #590: Women in Love (1970)

We’re at the end of another decade now as the 1970s come to an end with another British director and another film starring Glenda Jackson. In fact Ken Russell’s Women in Love was the film that really put Jackson on the map as the studio initially didn’t want to cast her in the movie due to her being an unknown quantity at the time. Jackson went onto win the Oscar for a film that is remembered today for one scene in particular and after having watched the film I can see why it’s not really remembered for anything else.

The women in love of the title are Jackson’s Gudrun and her sister Ursula who live in the midlands mining town of Beldover during the 1920s. Early on in the film we are introduced to the sisters’ love interests; son of the head of the local mining firm Gerald Crich and his best friend Rupert Birkin. Rupert and Ursula already have a connection, as he’s a school inspector and she’s a teacher however there relationship is stalled by the presence of his current partner; the rather serious Hermione. Meanwhile Gerald and Gundun’s relationship is a little bit more-staggered due to the fact that she’s quite free-spirited while he’s a little more long-in-the-tooth. Throughout the course of the film the relationships are tested by the death of Gerald’s sister and her husband and later when the quartet go to holiday together in the Alps. Whilst Rupert and Ursula are quick to marry, Gerald and Gundun’s relationship doesn’t run quite as smoothly with their communication problems getting the best of them. Gundrun’s friendship with a gay German artist starts to get Gerald even more jealous and he eventually ends up taking his own life amongst the snow whilst Gundrun considers following her new friend to Germany. However, Women in Love is quite a misleading title as if anything this film, and I’m assuming the book as well, is more concerned with the relationship between Gerald and Rupert. This is certainly true of the aforementioned memorable scene in which the two males partake in a spot of naked wrestling which visually cements this as much more than a friendship and certainly a different kind of love than the one Rupert has for Ursula.

The naked wrestling scene is just one of the elements that marks Women in Love out as a film from the ‘enfant terrible’ of the British film industry Ken Russell. Indeed the intense and aggressive sex scenes between the couples are the calling card of a man who was known for inserting many controversial elements throughout his work. In fact I personally felt as Women in Love was a little tame for a Russell picture and felt maybe he’d toned it down in order to be thought of in consideration for awards. I felt that Russell’s direction was definitely a stand out part of Women in Love as he brilliantly crafted all of the exterior scenes making Women in Love at least a visually impressive film. The double drowning scene as well as Gerald’s death in The Alps were moments that I still remember a couple of days after watching the film and I feel this is a testament to Russell. However the story and characterisation were less successful and I found myself struggling to care about any of the four principal players as I found the dialogue to be quite dry. This isn’t a slight against the majority of the main cast, three of whom I felt did their best to try and make their characters as sympathetic as possible. Glenda Jackson was obviously the stand out and deserved her Oscar for playing the forthright and high-maintenance Gundrun; who she gives a sense of artistic energy to throughout the film. Jackson shares great chemistry with her on-screen sister Jennie Linden marking out their scenes together as some of Women in Love’s best. Additionally I felt that Alan Bates and Linden made a great on-screen paring as Ursula and Rupert with his performance being both intense and captivating. In my opinion, only Oliver Reed let the side down as I found he gave a rather clichéd performance as the more reserved Gerald. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Reed wasn’t the original choice for the role but was picked by the studio who wanted a bankable star to lead the film. I feel this is a mistake as Reed’s performance was a little one-note and took away from the impact of some of his scenes with both Bates and Jackson.

At the 1970 Oscars, both Women in Love and Fellini Satyricon found themselves in the Best Director category but not in contention for Best Picture. Had they been included in that year’s roll call then they would most likely have replaced Airport and Five Easy Pieces; two films I enjoyed but for different reasons. I personally feel as if neither really deserved a place here but can understand why both were nominated for Best Director as both Russell and Fellini’s work on their respective films elevates the picture as a whole. However, despite Jackson’s great performance and Russell’s excellent direction, I never found Women in Love to be that compelling  a film although I do agree that it was nominated in the two Oscar categories that it deserved to appear in.

Next time we enter our 1960’s odyssey starting with a double bill from a director who we previously met when he helmed a rather controversial Best Picture nominee.

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