The late Ken Russell is one of Britain's greatest ever filmmakers. Films like THE DEVILS, MAHLER, THE MUSIC LOVERS, LISZTOMANIA and BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN speak for themselves. Following a decade of making documentaries for television, the latter earned the director commercial and critical success. But it was his next film - his 1969 adaptation of DH Lawrence's classic 1920 novel "Women in Love" - that cemented his reputation as a feature filmmaker of considerable potential.

It focuses on working class sisters Ursula (Jennie Linden) and Gudrun (Glenda Jackson), two young women living in 1920s England, who attend the wedding of their privileged friend Laura (Sharon Gurney). Laura is the daughter of local mine owner Thomas (Alan Webb), a man of considerable wealth and influence. Look out for popular horror actor Michael Gough as the girls' father.

Arriving at the wedding via bus, and with the conversation turning to the prospect of them both one day getting married themselves, Ursula and Gudrun have their heads turned by a couple of dashing male guests. For sculptress Gudrun, she's struck by Laura's brooding brother Gerald (Oliver Reed). Ursula is taken by his best pal Rupert (Alan Bates). She teaches at a local school and, via a flashback, we learn how education inspector Gerald had stirred her emotions while visiting her classroom one afternoon.

Despite moving in differing social circles, these four gravitate gradually towards each other: the mutual attraction between each couple dictating that they will soon sit down for afternoon tea together and, over a discussion about the best way to eat figs, become better acquainted.

Tumultuous relationships develop from this, as both couples ride the rocky road of love and Russell tackles Lawrence's musings on the complexities of human needs and foibles. While Rupert and Ursula head towards marital bliss and a subsequent honeymoon in Switzerland, lovers Gudrun and Gerald continue to struggle with their own turbulent affair while joining their friends overseas.

There's nudity and there's shagging. But WOMEN IN LOVE is so much more than the things excited schoolboys whispered about it in the pre-video days. Producer Larry Kramer wrote the sensitive, intelligent screenplay. He picks up on the uncertainty of the industrial England of the era and enjoys having his characters wallow in class warfare at every opportunity. Social mores and complex relationship issues are the buttons that seem to be pressing Russell on this occasion; he's attuned to Kramer's script, and elicits amazing performances (Jackson won an Oscar) from his excellent cast as a result.

Reed is Reed: charismatic and a huge presence at all times. But he hardly overshadows his co-stars. They're all on fire, especially the aforementioned Jackson as the difficult, demanding but ultimately vulnerable Gudrun. Hers is a complicated role and many lesser actresses would struggle to convey its depth with such persuasive clarity. She nails it. And it's as riveting as it is heartbreaking.

The film is probably most famous for the scene, about midway through, where Gerald and Rupert strip naked to wrestle each other in front of a roaring fire. It's a monstrously important scene, its culmination offering a startlingly frank - for its time, definitely - questioning of male bonding, sexuality and the thin line between the two. It's also beautifully shot.

Speaking of which, Billy Williams' cinematography deserves special mention. With gorgeous English locations and fortunate sunny afternoons at his disposal, his camera captures each scene quite meticulously, resulting in a rather painterly visual prospect. Complemented perfectly by Georges Delerue's jazzy score, both conspire to help WOMEN IN LOVE feel both perfectly paced and artistically weighty.

There are no weak points.

WOMEN IN LOVE comes to UK blu-ray, thanks to the efforts of the BFI. They've restored the film, uncut (130 minutes and 46 seconds including the opening MGM logo), in 4K. Presented as a nicely sized MPEG4-AVC file with full 1080p HD resolution, the transfer is framed at 1.75:1. Previous presentations have tended to be in 1.66:1, but everything seems correct here. As for the picture, it's beautiful. Sharp, clean, filmic, colourful, deep, true ... I don't know what else to say, other than this looks pretty amazing and I can't imagine how it could be improved upon. It's a stunning achievement.

English PCM mono audio is impressive too. Optional English subtitles are free from errors and easy to read at all times.

The disc opens to a static main menu page. There's no scene selection menu among the pop-up options but the film does contain 10 chapter stops.

An impressive offering of extras begin with two audio commentary tracks.

The first is from Russell. I could listen to him all day. His voice is light, slightly effeminate if I'm being totally candid, and incredibly easy to warm to. You know he's being sincere with every sentence, while just polite enough to carry it off. He's gracious, he's honest, he's attentive to detail: everything you'd hope for. He likes his actors to look as natural as possible on screen; his love for Lawrence extends to referencing other works of his during the film; Reed was a "gamble"; the censors were a chore ... excellent stuff.

Kramer turns up for the second commentary. As with the Russell chat track, this has been available before, on DVD. It's a lot drier than the director's offering, but still valid: he picks up on the themes of the plot as does the preceding track, including the very real possibility that Lawrence was a repressed homosexual, but provides an interesting alternate take on the film's shoot. He reveals how he fought to get Jackson cast despite not considering herself to be attractive, and provides illuminating insight into the legendary wrestling scene (Reed tried to get out of filming it by turning up on set with a note from his doctor!).

Cinematographer Williams is interviewed by fellow lenser Phil Meheux in an excellent 40-minute featurette shot in 2015. In it, Williams (an OBE) speaks warmly about his illustrious career, which includes working on the likes of ON GOLDEN POND and winning an Oscar for his efforts on GHANDI. Recorded on stage in front of an audience following a screening of WOMEN IN LOVE, this is a thorough and heartening featurette. The relationship between interviewer and interviewee is very informal and conversational, making for something that's not only incredibly interesting and informative, but something that you realise afterwards your face is aching - because you've been smiling through its duration.

There follows a wonderful 1982 interview with Jackson, recorded in front of an audience (who offer frequent questions for her to answer) at the National Film Theatre. The film plays in the background when this audio recording is selected. Jackson is an erudite, engaging and frequently witty interviewee. She reveals how she left school without qualifications, began working in Boots chemists', and fell into acting by chance. She expands on her dislike for television dramas, discusses the difference between acting on the stage and the screen, how it was to work with Ken Russell and much more. This runs for 77 minutes. I'll be honest: I went into this hoping it wouldn't be a chore to sit through. On the contrary, it makes for a fantastic, flab-free listen.

The film's original trailer is presented in its original 1.66:1 ratio and looks decent despite print damage. "Love: for men, just a part of life. For women, a whole existence" the earnest voiceover man urges during fast-paced scenes from the film, interspersed by quotes from glowing reviews from the likes of The Evening Standard and The Observer. A 3-minute stills gallery offers a plethora of colourful photographs while the film's laconic opening tune (a laidback instrumental version of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles") plays over them.

"The Pace-makers: Glenda Jackson" is an immensely enjoyable 14-minute TV documentary on the actress from 1971. It contains a healthy amount of excellent footage from the set of her then-shooting film, John Schlesinger's SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (which she refers to as BLOODY SUNDAY, presumably its working title). In-between, Jackson addresses the screen to speak about her love of acting, her methods and processes, and so on. She takes the opportunity to slag off the theatre, again!

"Second Best" is a 26-minute short film from 1972 by Stephen Dartnell. Apparently it's never been released before, but it's a quietly compelling piece. It earns its place here by starring Bates, and being based on DH Lawrence's short story of the same name. Proffered in a soft, grainy pillar-boxed presentation, it's a welcome addition to this disc.

A colour 28-page booklet rounds off the extras, containing noteworthy new essays by Michael Brooke, Paul Sutton and Vic Pratt. We also get some nice stills, full film credits and some notes on the new transfers.

WOMEN IN LOVE is a timeless classic and it's served extremely well on the BFI's new blu-ray release. Recommended.

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by BFI
Region B
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review