Director Ken Russell
Starring Sammi Davis, Paul McGann, Amanda Donohoe
Scott’s Review #1,409
Reviewed November 5, 2023
Continuing my exploration of more obscure films by the British director comes The Rainbow, a 1989 picture adapted from a 1915 D.H. Lawrence novel.
Russell fans will know that he also adapted 1970s Women in Love from Lawrence so there is a tie-in between films.
Even though The Rainbow was made nearly two decades after Women in Love, it’s a prequel. The antics of the Brangwen sisters are explored as they grow up in rural England specifically one sister’s burgeoning sexuality and desires.
One could take The Rainbow as a feminist film that centers mainly on the eldest sister.
Born to a rich landowner, played by Christopher Gable, in the final days of the Victorian era (the late 1800s), Ursula (Sammi Davis) blossoms into a beautiful young woman full of imagination and promise.
She is quite free-spirited and begins to feel trapped by her surroundings. Still, her life changes when she has an erotic experience with Winifred (Amanda Donohoe), an adventurous and bisexual teacher.
From that point on, Ursula puts all of her passion and creativity into the pursuit of sexual fulfillment. She prefers men and develops a relationship with the dashing Anton (Paul McGann).
But she is constantly frustrated and continues to suffer from anguish and under-fulfillment as her development years go by.
Davis is delightful and mesmerizing as the lead character. Her flowing blonde locks which she eventually cuts give her a wholesome schoolteacher persona. But she is peppered with sassiness and experimentation which Davis flawlessly executes.
Donohoe, who starred in another Russell film, the bizarre The Lair of the White Worm (1988) smolders with sophistication and sensuality. Winifred easily takes Ursula under her wing and teaches her the pleasures of sex.
Eventually marrying Ursula’s wealthy Uncle Henry she doesn’t decline into dull matrimony but remains a mentor and source of temptation to Ursula.
McGann, as Anton brings a boyish yet masculine flavor to the film and succeeds as the main love interest for Ursula. Becoming a soldier, he smolders most during his plentiful nude scenes running around forests and up mountains with Ursula in tow.
These scenes are the zestiest as Russell plugs his all-too-familiar bizarre sequences of lust and bare flesh into the film.
There are many nude scenes to salivate over turning the prim and proper Victorian upper-crust characters into horny animalistic creatures.
The dynamics between Ursula, Anton, and Winifred are my favorite because it’s not played as a traditional love triangle with one pair to root for. It’s more sexual and interesting than that.
Not everything in The Rainbow works, however.
Even though I’m very familiar with Women in Love the connection to that film is tough to capture. Gudrun (the other sister) is the main focus in Women in Love but only has a small role in The Rainbow. To make matters more confusing, Ursula (in The Rainbow) is more similar to the character of Gudrun (in Women in Love).
Also, Glenda Jackson (who plays Gudrun in Women in Love) is cast as the mother in The Rainbow. The role is unspectacular especially compared to the brilliant portrayal Jackson did in Women in Love.
She doesn’t have much to play except being their mother.
I finally decided to stop thinking about Women in Love and enjoy The Rainbow on its own merits.
Admittedly, the final sequence does satisfy as Ursula forges ahead to a new life which brings us back to the start of Women in Love.
Reminiscent of E.M. Forster’s adaptations like A Room with a View (1985), Maurice (1987), or Howards End (1992), the quaint English cottages, landscapes, and villages are wonderful and capture a specific time capsule.
The Rainbow (1989) transported me to another time and offered a character study meshed in sexuality, coming of age, and feminist power.