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Rainbow, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A prequel, twenty years later."
4 stars

Although Ken Russell is best known for his less restrained works in the 1970s and 1980s - things like "Tommy", "The Devils", and "Altered States" - he received his only Academy Award nomination for 1969's "Women In Love". It would be twenty years before he revisited that territory with his 1989 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's "The Rainbow" - long enough for Glenda Jackson to play the mother of the character she'd played in the earlier film!

Gudrun Brangwen, the character Jackson played in Women in Love, is barely a factor in The Rainbow anyway; she's just a baby in the opening scene. Of course, her older sister Ursula is only three at the time, trying to chase down rainbows and nearly falling into the river doing so until her beloved father (Christopher Gable) retrieves her. Fourteen years later, Will Brangwen is still trying to protect Ursula (Sammi Davis), urging her to remain at home and find a husband, while she wants to go to the city and earn her teaching certification. Her physical education teacher, Winifred Inger (Amanda Donohoe), invites her to spend time with her in private, but when Ursula invites Winifred to come with her to the estate of her Uncle Henry (David Hemmings), she feels tremendously jealous when the two of them hit it off - and Henry's guest, a handsome young soldier by the name of Anton Skrebensky (Paul McGann), is only partial consolation.

Immediately following Women in Love is probably not the ideal time to time to see The Rainbow. The Rainbow precedes Women in Love, both in terms of when Lawrence wrote the original novels and the ages of the shared characters within. And while Russell did film Women in Love first, he didn't make The Rainbow until twenty years later. I didn't necessarily need to wait twenty years to revisit these characters, but it might have been nice to let Women in Love settle in my mind for more than a half hour before having my impression of Ursula upended. The films are now probably more closely linked in my mind than Russell necessarily intended when making the second.

From what I read online, the screenplay by Russell and his wife (at the time) Vivian covers only a fraction of the original novel, which has sections on Ursula's father and grandfather. One result of this is to perhaps give a little more heft to Gable's performance than what's in the script - if he's read the novel as part of his preparation, he's got plenty to draw from even if it's not on-screen. It's also interesting to compare with the Russell's previous Lawrence adaptation, in that Ursula and Gudrun were very close in his Women in Love, but here Gudrun is just Ursula's annoying little sister. It could reflect the way siblings' relationships change as they enter adulthood, or just an artistic decision to focus on Ursula's coming of age to the exclusion of most of the rest.

Either way, the filmmakers chose a good Ursula. Sammi Davis stands out from a crowd with her beauty, and as the movie goes on, she integrates her character's experiences without losing her basic girlish innocence. It's a nice, natural progression; she never does a complete about-face in response to a critical event, but the Ursula that finishes the movie can handle a blow that the petulant teenager at the beginning would be destroyed by. Amanda Donohoe almost looks like an older version of Ms. Davis, which is troubling because we know Ursula aspires to be a teacher, and if she follows in Winifred's footsteps closely enough, then she'll be a silver-tongued predator, too. Between the two, though, the way Winifred transfers her attention to Ursula's uncle almost seems reasonable: Winifred seems genuinely apologetic, and Ursula's reaction is real and angry enough that the audience might think that maybe she needs a harsh lesson before she gets too deep into this grown up sexual stuff.

Speaking of which, Paul McGann is ideal casting for the kind of role he plays - handsome, a little more mature than Ursula but still possessed of a certain amount of innocence as to what he'll encounter as a soldier. Is her perfect or just what young girls dream about? Glenda Jackson's casting as the Brangwen mother might be an inside joke, but she plays very nicely off Christopher Gable, with the traditional opposing views of just how ready the family is for Ursula to be her own responsibility.

That's what this movie is, after all - testing a girl's readiness for womanhood - getting her early heartbreaks and doubts in so that she can handle worse later. So by the end, she may still be chasing rainbows, but won't need her father to catch her any more.

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originally posted: 06/20/06 22:49:56
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  26-May-1989 (R)

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