The Rainbow

December 5, 2011

When director Ken Russell made a film of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love in 1969, the movie established him as a major world filmmaker, after a decade of fascinating TV work and undistinguished features.

Twenty years later, after having spent much of the last decade noodling at some peculiar projects, Russell has returned to the source. The Rainbow, another Lawrence adaptation, is his long-planned follow-up to Women in Love. It is actually something of a prequel, because it tells the story of the Brangwen sisters as girls, before they became women in love.

Russell’s film, which lops off the first half of the novel, focuses on Ursula Brangwen (Sammi Davis), a young woman growing up on the family farm who chafes at the dullness of the life that lies ahead of her. Her search for something else leads her first into a lesbian dalliance with her swimming teacher (Amanda Donohoe), then into a teaching career at a brutish school in London (the schoolroom scenes, with their smoky oppression, are among the film’s best). Finally Ursula enters into a dark relationship with a soldier (Paul McCann).

Russell seems to care about the material, and that is a good sign; he has some soaring photography of the English countryside from cameraman Billy Williams. But the movie feels skeletal in comparison to Lawrence’s dark prose. It’s fine when dealing with the charmingly immature foot-stomping of its heroine, but on shakier ground when attempting to plumb the depths of her emotional awakening.

Russell displays little of the outrageousness that has so often placed him in hot water. Mirroring the then-daring nude wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in Women in Love is a rather wan nude massage delivered to Ursula by her swim instructor. And Russell’s staging of an episode in which Ursula is startled by some horses seems dated in its sexual symbolism.

Sammi Davis, who played the sister in Hope and Glory and acted up a storm for Russell in the campy Lair of the White Worm, is a tough call as Ursula. Davis has the natural vivacity to suggest a restless spirit, but she doesn’t really have the complexity the role demands.

Elsewhere, Russell has two cast members from Women in Love, Christopher Gable and Glenda Jackson (who won an Oscar for Women in Love) as Ursula’s parents. This turns out to be more of a clever touch than anything else, although Gable contributes a winning warmth as Ursula’s rough-hewn father. Amanda Donohoe, who played the fang-sprouting villain of Lair of the White Worm, and David Hemmings, who plays Ursula’s dandyish uncle, are the performers most in tune with the material. Donohoe, who has steady, almond-shaped eyes, is wry and mysterious. She’s past girlishness, but what an intriguing Ursula she would have made.

First published in the Herald, June 8, 1989

I don’t think I could bring myself to watch this disappointment again—it felt like a miscast, under-funded fumble. I remember interviewing Sammi Davis at some point (was it possibly for this movie?), and at one point she mentioned another actress’s beauty, and described herself as having “a…a…monkey face!” So she was very appealing, but not for D.H. Lawrence.