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Ken Russell later films

Ken Russell - The Rainbow title

"From the early moments of his new film, when a glittering rainbow arches over emerald green meadows, it is apparent that Ken Russell is the purest interpreter D. H. Lawrence could have hoped for" (Caryn James, New York Times,  5 May 1989)

Ken Russell filming of D.H. Lawrence's The Rainbow from 1989, well worth watching.  The film was an attempt to repeat the success of Women in Love and while it almost succeeds critically, it failed commercially.

Ken Russell - The Rainbow

The novel covers the Bragwen family whose story Lawrence continued in Women in Love.  "[Russell's'] Women in Love was all about passionate expression; Ursula and her sister Gudrun created themselves as colorfully and self-consciously as if they were modernist works of art.  The Rainbow tells of the young Ursula's struggle against the genteel, repressive world into which she was born... Ken and Vivian Russell's script takes some liberties with the novel, creating sharply drawn characters to surround their heroine" (Caryn James, New York Times,  5 May 1989).

Sammi Davis - The Rainbow

The film follows Ursula from a child to a young woman in a constraining family environment.

Le Belle Dame Sans Merci by Arthur Hughes

Ken Russell regularly uses paintings in his films.  Here Ursula imagines being saved from her drab life. 

Christ in the House of His Parents by John Everett Millais

But the other painting brings her back to the reality of her family life.  The paintings are Le Belle Dame Sans Merci by Arthur Hughes and Christ in the House of His Parents by John Everett Millais.

Ken Russell - The Rainbow - Sammi Davis

She rests in a Pre-Raphaelite pose.

Ken Russell - The Rainbow - Glenda Jaclkson and Christopher Gable 

Parents Anna (Glenda Jackson) and Will (Christopher Gable).

Ken Russell - The Rainbow

As a teenager Ursula meets the dashing soldier Anton Skrebensky (Paul McGann) who almost seduces her in a church, slowly peeling off her glove, compare with Brando picking up the glove in On the Waterfront.

Ken Russell - The Rainbow - Amanda Donohoie and Sammi Davis

But he cannot compete with the forbidden eroticism of the swimming instructor Winifred (Amanda Donohoe).

Ken Russell - The Rainbow

The scene is reminiscent of Alan Bates and Oliver Reed after wrestling in Women in Love.

Ken Russell - The Rainbow - Sammi Davis 

Ursula tries to assert her freedom by becoming a teacher in a Dickensian school, but it is an unhappy place as she is caught between leering masters and prank-playing children.

Discovering she is pregnant her only hope seems to be with the soldier, but she discovers he has since married.  Confused and caught in a literal fog she comes across horses which terrify her and she flees, the flight across a river causing a fever which almost kills her.  She wakes at home, with her parents looking after her.

Ken Russell - The Rainbow

A rainbow outside her window encourages her to chase her own rainbow, mirroring the opening of the film.

Some critics are negative "The film reeks of mediocrity, floundering in banal imagery (kisses against boughs, rushing waterfalls, etc). Many essentials in what is a masterful three-generation novel have been jettisoned, and Carl Davis' score is formulary in the extreme. Saving graces are Sammi Davis' earthy, matter-of-fact portrayal of Ursula, and Amanda Donohoe's sensitive Winifred" (WH in Timeout, no date, click here).

Compare with "this is not a nostalgic costume drama, dripping with atmosphere. Russell has kept all of the hurt and anger of Lawrence's fiction. This is a movie that speaks to today, that could feel like an anthem to a young woman who feels that her spirit is not free... in The Rainbow he has made a measured, thoughtful literary adaptation. He obviously believes Lawrence's message is as appropriate now as it was then, and, of course, he is right" (Roger Egbert, 2 Jun 1989 click here).

 The film company, Vestron, went bankrupt just before the release, so the film had no advertising whatsoever.


Sammi Davis - The Rainbow  Amanda Donohoe- The Rainbow

Sammi Davis (Lair of the White Worm) plays the inexpereinced Ursuala, and Amanda Donohoe the worldy and seducting Winifred.  Both appear nude, unlike in Lair where Donohoe did not despite a scene making little sense if not naked.

Glenda Jackson - The Rainbow  Christopher Gable - The Rainbow

Russell uses many of the same people, actors and technicians, who had worked on Women in Love: Glenda Jackson and Christopher Gable (above), cinematographer Billy Williams and electrical supervisor/gaffer George Cole.  Glenda Jackson brings out a soul hidden in a colourless life- she plays the part so naturally you would never guess she is a double Oscar winning actress.  "Glenda Jackson... has a brief stunning role as Ursula's mother.  In a few scenes, she suggests all the tension we ought to find in the daughter" (Caryn James, New York Times,  5 May 1989).

Christopher Gable is equally convincing.   In one scene he plays the organ just as his character Fenby did in the opening (and sometimes cut) scene of Song of Summer,

Molly Russell, Ken's daughter and Rupert Russell, his son, play the children.  Other regulars are David Hemmings (Clouds of Glory), Judith Paris (in Russell's films from Isadora in 1966 to Lady Chatterley in 1993)  and Kenneth Colley (Modeste in The Music Lovers).  The music of Carl Davis fits in well with film, for example the scene destroying the cabbages, and Imogen Claire does the choreography.  Photography was by Billie Williams and Peter Davis was the editor.

Whereas the novel covers many generations living through the industrialisation of North England- "The novel is also conceived on a majestic scale, spanning a period from the 1840s to 1905, and showing how the Brangwen farming family is changed by Britain's industrial revolution, evolving from pastoral idyll to the chaos of modernity" (Robert McCrum, The Guardian, 14 Jul 2014, click here)- the script  by Russell and then wife Vivian virtually ignores the industrialisation focuses on the rites of passage of Ursula from the child looking at the rainbow through to her self-realisation. She calls herself "a bird blown out of its own latitude".  A failing of the script is the dialogue which is pared back but it does mean characters then tend to speak in aphorisms- "I don’t think brains matter, it matters whether people have courage or not".

Russell dedicates the film "In Memory of Marion Russell".

Ken Russell - The Rainbow - credit

Best Image

Ken Russell - The Rainbow  Ken Russell - The Rainbow

The rows of swimmers like tadpoles...  and the lesbian lovers swim against the flow.

Ken Russell - The Rainbow - rainbow sandwich

The rainbow sandwich.

"Russell exploits the cinematic tools in very creative ways, especially when dealing with the pervading image of the rainbow. Besides opening and closing the film, the iridescent arch appears in different shots, reflected on the window glass of Ursula’s bedroom or on her face. In particular, in the pre-credit sequence Russell even has it recreated in a “culinary” form when Will Brangwen spreads different types of jams to draw a colourful arch on a toast he offers young Ursula, in an attempt to cheer her up. Tellingly, although fascinated by the real thing, the child refuses to eat the “surrogate” rainbow"(Raffaella Antinucci, Going “beyond”: Ken Russell’s The Rainbow (1989) from D.H. Lawrence's The Rainbow Re-Readings of a Radical Text, edited by Renzo D’Agnillo).

Best Scene

Ken Russell - The Rainbow

The lesbian seduction in the swimming pool.


Ken Russell The Rainbow   Ken Russell The Rainbow

The rocking horse (also in Russell's A British Picture and In Search of the English Folk Song) and real horses.

Ken Russell - The Rainbow - Sammi Davis

The schoolgirls wear sailor suits.

The painter and his model.
Sexuality (repressed, lesbian), hills and lakes and Catholicism (various church sequences).

Ken Russell - The Rainbow  Billion Dollar Brain

Swings appear in many Russell films including Billion Dollar Brain (right) and Mindbender.

Ken Russell - The Rainbow

And walking waist high through a field  was first used in The Music Lovers, both bringing out a sense of freedom.

Ken Russell - The Rainbow

One of Russell's favourite shots which occurs in most films- a character in silhouette at a door along a dark corridor.


Other films released in the same year include Born on the Fourth of July, Black Rain, Driving Miss Daisy and Pet Sematary.

Born on the Fourth of July  Black Rain  Driving Miss Daisy  Pet sematary


More films

Click title for film French Dressing * Billion Dollar Brain * Women in Love * The Music Lovers* The Devils * The Boy Friend * Savage Messiah * Mahler * Tommy * Lisztomania * Valentino * Altered States * Crimes of Passion * Gothic * Aria * The Lair of the White Worm * Salome's Last Dance * The Rainbow * Whore


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