Ken Russell's Women In Love

It's time for another Ken Russell classic on blu-ray.  And this one might be the absolute pinnacle of them all; his powerful adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's Women In Love.  This time, however, there isn't a dual US/ UK option like with Valentino, where BFI put out one edition, and Kino another.  This time there's just the BFI disc.  But honestly, BFI's special editions have been right up there with the very best from Arrow, Synapse or any other perfectionist label lately, so I'm not worried.

Update 9/15/21: Added Criterion's 2018 DVD, the BFI's US rival with some intriguing features of its own.
If you're looking at this and worrying that it's going to be a boring old romance, you don't know your D.H. Lawrences or your Ken Russells very well.  I mean, in some ways maybe it is Ken Russell's most romantic picture.  It's certainly one of his most picturesque, with beautiful photography, luxuriant landscapes and Lawrence's idolization of nature artfully captured on film.  But this is more of an unflinching examination of relationships formed and broken without the niceties of love or affection rather than some kind of cutesy Jane Austen match maker.  Most of these peoples' relationships seem to end in attempted murder more than anything else!
Instead what you have are some powerhouse performances by Oliver Reed, Glenda Jackson and Alan Bates, brilliant, faithfully reproduced writing, and Russell's flair for opulence and spectacle muted just enough to breath far more life than any other director would've into the material, but without going over the top and becoming an a 1920's Tommy.  One doesn't usually think of Russell as walking fine lines as a filmmaker, but he certainly does here.  Everything from the costumes to the inclusion of Lawrence's poem about figs into the material is pretty spot-on perfect in this film.
Women In Love has been on my "to replace" list for a long time, because MGM's 2003 DVD had been one of the few remaining non-anamorphic hold-outs in my collection.  I'd scoured the internet, and unfortunately, the UK DVD was also non-anamorphic, as was the Australian DVD and every other version in existence.  Until, finally in 2016, BFI announced a new blu-ray edition!  Hallelujah!  Not only would it be HD and finally anamorphic, but a new 4k restoration from the original negatives, with a whole ton of new special features!  Then two years later, in the US, Criterion released their own edition here in the US.
2003 MGM DVD top; 2018 Criterion DVD mid; 2016 BFI BD bottom.

Well, of course just being anamorphic is already a huge step forward, but even though this film seems to have a high grain-to-detail ratio (it almost looks like it was shot on 16), BFI's blu much clearer and more refined than the old DVD, which looks like a smudgy, high contrast mess.  Here, the grain is natural, so I doubt the film could ever look much better.  Now, note, I have Criterion's DVD here, not their BD, so naturally it's softer and more compressed; but it's clearly using the same master as BFI.  Interestingly, the BFI presents the film "in its original theatrical ratio of 1.75:1," which leaves the film still pillar-boxed, but cropping away a tiny bit of vertical information along the top and bottom of the DVD's 1.66.  Criterion has almost the same framing, but not quite - cropping it a little tighter along the top and bottom but stretching it vertically to fit the same AR of 1.75.  The DVD also seems to have some unsharp mask or other edge work done to it, and a bit of a redder tone.  Really, the modern releases are improvements in just about every way.

All three releases feature the original English mono track, with the blu presenting it in a lossless LPCM. Both newer editions also include English subtitles, though the old DVD did also feature Spanish and French subs for any non-English speakers in the audience who must be struggling through this review.  😉
So the MGM DVD did have some strong qualities to recommend it, not the least of which were two terrific audio commentaries.  The first was by Ken Russell himself, and fans of Russell films should know he always does excellent commentaries, which are both highly entertaining and yet genuinely informative.  But the other audio commentary, by producer/screenwriter Larry Kramer.  He was involved with the film before even Russell, so he has a lot to say that no one else can, and a lot of passion for the project which keeps things energetic.  The original DVD also included a photo gallery, the trailer and one of those lame MGM commercials that auto-played on start-up.
Thankfully, the BFI disc carries all of that over (except the MGM ad), as those were some real treasures to be preserved.  And in addition to that, there's plenty more.  First of, is an almost 90-minute interview with Glenda Jackson, which isn't an audio-commentary (it was recorded back in the early 80s), but is played over the film.  Then there's a 15-minute vintage BBC television program called The Pacemakers, which is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Women In Love and Sunday, Bloody Sunday with Glenda Jackson.  If you're in the mood for something brand new, there's a nearly hour-long interview with the film's cinematographer, Billy Williams, which goes over his whole career, but focuses a lot on Women In Love specifically.  And perhaps the most surprising inclusion is Second Best, an short Lawrence adaptation (27 minutes) from 1972 that Alan Bates produced and starred in.  The quality's a bit rough and the pacing could lose about 5-8 minutes and still be slow, but it's actually quite good.  Finally, the disc comes with an excellent 26-page booklet with detailed notes and illustrations - I particularly appreciate how they cover each of the special features.

And the Criterion?  Well, they still have the MGM commentaries, but then things get a little more complicated.  Some of their extras are the same: Second Best and the trailer.  But they drop the rest of the BFI goodies.  That's a bummer, but then Criterion has a bunch of their own, mostly vintage exclusives.  There's a great, 49-minute long autobiographical television doc by Ken Russell from 1989 called Portrait of an Enfant Terrible.  Then there's a 2007 interview with Russell, a 1976 interview with Glenda Jackson, and a short ATV Today television featurette that gets catches Kramer, Bates and Jennie Linden on set at the time of the filming. And they have new, original interviews with Williams and editor Michael Bradsell.  Plus it has an insert with notes by Linda Ruth Williams.
So we've now got our choice of two top notch releases of a first class film - BFI did it again!  And Criterion brought it to America.  With their matching transfers (extrapolating to Criterion's blu-ray, which was also released in 2018) and dueling sets of exclusive extras, it's a tough call which release to get.  Criterion's is probably a little bit better.  Fortunately, both have the Russell commentary and other overlapping extras (both have new Williams interviews and vintage ones with Jackson and Russell), so either option is fine, and most buyers will probably just want to get whichever is local to them.  Die-hard fans will need both.

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