Women In Love, a two-part dramatisation of the D.H. Lawrence novels Women In Love and The Rainbow, traces the complex lives of Gudren (former Bond girl Rosamund Pike) and Ursula (Rachel Sterling) Brangwen, two sexually-liberated sisters living cosmetically different yet emotionally similar lives in the early years of the twentieth century.
Originally adapted for the big screen in 1969 by Ken Russell – and featuring some explicit sequences including Oliver Reed and Alan Bates wrestling naked in front of a fireplace (a scene famously beloved by Alan Partridge) – this new television version for BBC Four’s Modern Love Season keeps a great deal of the sex but less of the nudity. There is, as Gerald Crich (Joseph Mawle) remarks at one point, ‘not a single breast’ on display, although there are frequent flashes of bare buttocks in the pre- and post-coital scenes.
The sex is mostly joyless and uncomfortable for the characters and viewer alike. It is by turns unconsummated, unsatisfying, unedifying and – in the case of Ursula’s seaside rape by her fiancé Anton Skrenbensky (Joseph Kennedy), who resembles Blackadder’s Captain Darling if he’d joined A-ha – unwelcome and extremely uncomfortable. The sole exception comes when the two sisters’ parents, Will and Anna (Ben Daniels and Saskia Reeves), reconcile the differences in their desires and needs to enjoy a brief moment of unbridled, uninhibited passion.
The bits outside the bedroom are similarly gloomy. Ursula, having already lost a baby she didn’t want, calls off her engagement because her fiancé doesn’t satisfy her and is assaulted for her trouble. Art student Gudren is left heartbroken when her elder lover jilts her; then humiliated when his wife abuses her in front of her friends. Even the principal male characters – whose lives are only tangential to the Brangwen girls – don’t have a very good time of it: Gerald’s sister drowns during his birthday party, while his friend Rupert Birkin (Rory Kinnear) is secretly gay, desperately and unrequitedly in love with Gerald, and later the victim of an assault from a soldier whom he kisses in a railway train toilet. The morale of the story seems to be that happiness is illusory and even the briefest moments of pleasure are just a prelude to misanthropy and misery.
The sex, sadness and endlessly explicit language are all integral facets of D.H. Lawrence’s work, yet in this adaptation they sit rather uneasily alongside beautifully realised scenes of Edwardian England which could easily have come from a more mainstream drama serial. Each time there’s a ‘fuck’ or some carnal grunting, it’s like someone has interspersed a few frames of Skins into an episode of Agatha Christie’s Marple.
The actors – Daniels and Reeves in particular – are excellent, and there’s enough gloomy intrigue to keep a fairly decent level of interest throughout the ninety minutes. But the certain knowledge that there’s more betrayal and tragedy to come in the second episode means that staying the distance will be hard-going – and without any of the titillation that so enthralled Alan Partridge to enliven things along the way.
Airs at 9pm on Thursday 24th March 2011 on BBC Four.