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50 Years of Love, Marriage, Art & Nature: Ken Russell’s Women in Love

Summer of ’69

I didn’t have to think hard about what to pick for my ‘Summer of ‘69’ article, as it just so happened that one of the most memorable films for me was released that year.

Ken Russell’s Women in Love is based on the D.H. Lawrence novel of the same title. The book was published nearly fifty years earlier than film, in 1920. It was a significant period in the world—after WWI, the world heading to WWII. By the time when the film was released, there were no world wars but the changes happening in society were profound.

To make a parallel between these two eras, especially in the context of Women in Love, I would say that both periods were marked with the confrontation between ‘individual’ and ‘masses.’ In the ’20s the masses were prevalent, eventually resulting in the creation of Fascist and Communist regimes in Europe. In the ’60s, individualism was perhaps at its peak, especially given the experience of the earlier 20th century. Now, even the masses seemed to consist of individuals.

Among the characters of the story, Rupert Birkin is the one who voices the ideas closest to the spirit of the ’60s. He wishes to throw down the conventional institutions of society. He has anarchistic ideas; he’s a pacifist, though he hates humanity. For example, this quote of his, full of sarcasm:

“What people want is hate. Hate, and nothing but hate. In the name of righteousness and love, ye shall have hate. Out of love, ye shall throw down nitroglycerine bombs, and ye shall kill your brother. It’s the lie that kills. Oh, if people want hate, let them have it. Death, torture, murder, violent destruction. Let’s have it!”

In broad strokes, Women in Love is the story of the relationship of two sisters with two young men. The personalities of each of these four people determine the nature of their relationship and the outcome of the story.

The film starts with the conversation of two sisters, Gudrun (Glenda Jackson) and Ursula Brangwen (Jennie Linden), about marriage. We mostly get to hear Gudrun’s ideas. The conversation takes place on their way to the wedding of the local Mine owner’s daughter. For Gudrun, marriage is an experience one should have in her life. This is how she looks at life; she goes through the experiences. Marriage is ‘the inevitable next step.’

Gudrun and Ursula

Ursula, on the other hand, is not sure the ‘one can get anywhere by just marrying.’ As I look at it, for Ursula, marriage is the result of love while Gudrun doesn’t even mention the word ‘love.’

Ursula is a teacher at a local grammar school. Gudrun is an artist and also teaches art at the school. She has just returned from London and has a hard time getting back to life in a small town in the Midlands.

In the wedding scene, we also meet two young men—Gerald Chich (Oliver Reed) and Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates). Gerald is the heir of the Mine owner, and also the brother of the bride. Rupert is a school inspector and an intellectual with controversial views on life. From their very first short conversation, we get to know Gerald as a reserved person. He tries to act gentlemanly, but you can’t say it’s natural—it’s more like he’s doing what he thinks he should be doing. On the other hand, Rupert values spontaneity, “It’s the hardest thing in the world, to act spontaneously, on one’s impulses, and it’s the only gentlemanly thing to do,” says Rupert.

Ursula knows Rupert from the school. There is a flashback to the day when Rupert came to the class followed by his then-lover Hermione Roddice. Rupert describes catkins as if he was talking about human sexuality. It is all the same for him; everything is similar in nature. His strives for spontaneity is why his relationship with Hermione is falling apart. He is irritated by Hermione’s dominative, controlling nature, her predictability and lack of spontaneity. This becomes very obvious in the ballet scene at Hermione’s house. Hermione and the Brangwen sisters play the roles of biblical widows: Naomi, Ruth, and Orpha. In the middle of the performance—by Rupert’s suggestion—the pianist starts to play a rag-time tune which gets everyone dancing. Everyone except Hermione, who is furious because she believes it was planned deliberately by Rupert. The latter claims again that it was a spontaneous act, and that Hermione cannot understand it because she hates unplanned moments as they are not in her control.

Rupert’s words and behavior causes Hermione to hit him in the head with paperweight and Rupert runs out of the house. And here happens one of the most daring and beautiful scenes (at least to me). Rupert runs towards the forest, takes off his clothes and begins walking in nature as if he wants to become one with it. This is one of the scenes in the film with male nudity (another one is the wrestling scene which I will discuss later). With nude scenes, it’s possible to cross the line to vulgarity. But Ken Russell manages to make them simply beautiful. These scenes are organic to the film and important for showing the essence and deeper desires of the characters.

Rupert’s yearning for nature and spontaneity is the reason he is attracted to genuinely feminine Ursula who is the most natural of the characters. Even the colors of her clothes used in the film emphasize her closeness to nature: vivid-colored clothing, with flower prints in the beginning and earthy tones later, in which she looks like blending with the surrounding environment. She accepts life without much questioning. Ursula seems simple, maybe even weak, but there is some strength in her—eventually, she gets what she wants, perhaps because she refuses to question what she knows.

Rupert and Ursula in the field

I began the article with Rupert’s individualism—his antisocial, even anarchistic ideas that society, as it is, should be destroyed. He would be happy if humanity was destroyed to leave ‘uninterrupted grass and rabbits.’ He doesn’t believe in conventional marriage—those that make all couples seem alike; similar families living in similar houses. He doesn’t believe in love as people have vulgarized this word. He wishes to “die from our kind of life. Be born again, through a love that is like sleep”. And the following words said by Rupert might be interpreted differently, but to me, they clearly have the vibe of the ’60s.

“Oh, I don’t want love! I don’t want to know you. I want to be gone out of myself. I want you to be lost to yourself, so we are found different.”

For Ursula though, love is all we’ve got. It’s a very grounded and real thing for her. And it seems like Ursula is the one who keeps Rupert grounded. She literally makes him say ‘my love’ to her. The first time they make love somehow doesn’t feel right. Ursula seems to be dominated and even humiliated. The scene takes place in parallel to the search of the drowned couple (the same couple from the wedding at the beginning of the film). The water from the lake was released, and the couple were found on the bank—the woman held the man with her arms around him so that he was unable to free himself. Thus, the woman killed the man. The transition of the image of the drowned couple to Ursula and Rupert in precisely the same pose suggests that this is what usually happens—women are the ones who decide what becomes of the relationship.

Two shots one of a couple drowned, one of a couple post sex, showing the couples tangled

And eventually, the fate of our two couples are defined by women. They rule the realm of love while men can only theorize on it.

Gerald Crich, as I’ve already mentioned, is the heir of a Mine owner. He became in charge of the mines and is now trying to modernize them. Gerald has industrialized his father’s business at the same time, making it less personal and less relationship-based. He rejects older ways of doing business. According to his own words, Gerald lives for work. But still, it doesn’t look like a real purpose of his life; more correct would be to say that he has no real purpose. Other than for work, he lives because he’s living.

In a scene where Gerald rides a horse trying to get ahead of a train, the train moves faster, and it blocks the road for Gerald. But he doesn’t stop urging his horse, even when it’s bleeding. A man competing with machinery, it’s the realm he strives to conquer. He seeks perfection, to be important, exceptional. Even in suffering, he goes till the end. When his father is dying, he chooses to be the one who sees through it. Gerald seems strong, but it’s more like he’s acting strong. He needs Gudrun, and after his father’s death, he goes to her. That’s when their affair starts.

For this couple, in opposition to Rupert and Ursula, nature and naturalism never seem to be excluded at all. Gudrun is an artist who models animals and birds—even nature goes through human hands, if I may say. I’ve mentioned Gerald’s competing with train, and now Gudrun is challenging Highland cattle. It is a fascinating scene; the sight of Gudrun putting herself at risk makes Gerald admit that he’s in love with her.

Gudrun and highland kettle

Gerald says, “I don’t believe a woman and nothing but a woman will ever make my life.” But eventually, he is defeated by the woman—Gudrun, who makes him realize his ultimate emptiness. He’s tired of living and chooses to sleep eternally in the snow. He freezes to death.

Gudrun, meanwhile, finds another experience to live—she goes to Dresden with a new German friend, Loerke. Loerke is an artist who is fond of machinery and claiming that art should interpret industry like it once interpreted religion. (I can’t help but think of Futurism and later its connection to Fascism.) Loerke is an interesting character who looks to have the traits Gerald lacks and lives a life that Gerald wouldn’t dare. He is openly gay, while Gerald’s relationship with Rupert suggests the desire but it never materializes. It reminds me of Gudrun’s remark from the beginning:

“Everything fails to materialize. Nothing materializes. Everything withers in the bud.”

In the central part of the film, there is a naked wrestling scene with Gerald and Rupert. This is another beautifully shot scene which expresses perfectly the whole essence of these men’s relationship. Filmed in front of a fireplace, lit only by flames, the scene is visually and emotionally stunning. Its eroticism, combined with aggression, covered by the mask of the game, makes this scene the most intense in the film. It actually made me return to the film time and time again over the years. This scene, and indeed all others where Gerald and Rupert are together, suggest an attraction between them. Rupert suggests it more openly, believing equally in the relationship between a man and a man, as to the relationship between a man and a woman. It’s not the same but ‘equally important, equally creative, equally sacred.’ But Gerald always holds back.

The whole film is full of contradictions, even within the characters. Everybody contradicts themselves, except for Gudrun, perhaps, who is the most straightforward among them. The final scene doesn’t answer anything either; it just repeats what is said many times. Ursula insists that one can’t have two different kinds of love at the same time, and Rupert replies that he doesn’t believe that.

Women in Love is one of those films which doesn’t leave the viewer indifferent. Whether you like it or not, it sticks in your mind thanks to its intriguing story, fascinating characters, and stunning visuals. And, based on my own experience, it offers more to discover with each viewing.

Written by Magda Mariamidze

Magda is a cinephile living in Tbilisi, Georgia. She runs her Facebook group dedicated to cinema. Adores Twin Peaks and David Lynch. She is also known for loving strange films that no one has seen except her and the directors themselves, at least some of her friends think so. Her other passion is music, especially classical, and also loved to attend Latin dance fiestas in the time before the pandemic.

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  1. I serendipitously came upon this review, I’m retired and free to think about whatever, whenever for whatever reason and have www whenever I need a memory prompt. In this case, the name of the actor whose career and movies I’d followed ever since I’d seen him in the movie Women in Love in 1971 as part of a college course ‘Film as Literature’. Alan Bates. And of course Glenda Jackson was instantly dear to my heart as well. Thank you, Magda, for this enlightening analysis. I see it’s time to watch this film again. I need only reach into my cabinet for the dvd where it has been for couple decades:) (before that as vhs) Will probably spend a bit more time thinking about Ken Russell as a director as well.

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