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Priest of Love

Priest of Love(1981)

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British author D.H. Lawrence wrote thirteen novels, ten plays, dozens of short stories, hundreds of poems, many nonfiction books, travel books, and pamphlets, and enough letters to fill eight volumes - and on top of all that, he was a prolific painter. Yet he's remembered by most people for just one of his numerous works: the novel Lady Chatterley's Lover, about an upper-crust woman who has an affair with the gamekeeper on her impotent husband's estate. The tale seemed so scandalous in 1928 that its American publisher deleted much of it from the first edition. The full version didn't appear in Britain until 1960, a year after Parliament passed the Obscene Publications Act, which allowed books to include traditionally forbidden content as long as literary merit was also present. The publisher was promptly tried under the new law and Lawrence's novel passed the test, reaching bookstores intact and blazing a trail for other sexually explicit books.

Priest of Love, a fictionalized account of Lawrence's last years, focuses not on the trial but on the time in Lawrence's life when he wrote Lady Chatterley's Lover and other late works. This period coincided with his self-imposed exile from England, which started shortly after World War I and lasted (with two brief interruptions) until his death in 1930. The movie begins in Cornwall in 1914, when Lawrence's eccentric habits and anti-patriotic attitudes run afoul of the authorities; when Germany is the enemy, singing loud German songs in your living room is not a great idea. A different set of authorities go after Lawrence a year later, when more than a thousand copies of his 1915 novel The Rainbow are deemed obscene and destroyed, by the Public Hangman, no less. The story then follows Lawrence and his German-born wife, Frieda, on their travels, concentrating mostly on their stay in Italy and their later residence on a ranch in Taos, New Mexico, where Lawrence writes and paints until returning to Italy not long before his death in 1930 from tuberculosis, which is diagnosed during a trip to Mexico that's also in the film.

Like most biopics, Priest of Love relies on its lead performance for much of its impact, and Ian McKellan doesn't disappoint in the first starring movie role of his career. Although his most famous character is Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he is a versatile actor with everything from Broadway and television to video games and the Royal Shakespeare Company under his belt, not to mention two Academy Award nominations - for Gods and Monsters (1998) and the first Lord of the Rings installment (2001) - plus a Tony and five Emmy nominations. He is also a founding member of Stonewall, a British gay-rights organization, which adds to his credentials as the ideal actor to play Lawrence, who was probably bisexual and definitely freethinking where sex was concerned.
The Virgin and the Gypsy, a novella Lawrence wrote in 1926.) The supporting cast features Janet Suzman as Frieda and lovely Ava Gardner in her next-to-last movie role as Mabel Dodge Luhan, an American millionaire. Penelope Keith is excellent as plain, lonely Brett, and John Gielgud is icing on the cake as Herbert G. Muskett, an unyielding legal foe of Lawrence's naughty books.

Priest of Love was filmed partly in a studio and partly on locations in England, France, Italy, and Mexico where Lawrence actually lived. Paradoxically, though, the movie is at its worst in matters of local color and authenticity, using flamboyantly dressed Native Americans for pseudo-American atmosphere and presenting dramatic events in surroundings that resemble pretty postcards more than real, lived-in places. The costumes don't work either. It's true that privileged people of Lawrence's time went about in elegant outfits even when the weather was hot and the mood was casual; but here the white linen suits are never smudged and nobody ever breaks a sweat, much less removes a jacket under the midday sun. Perhaps because director Miles has a fondness for playwrights - he has made movies from scripts by Jean Genet and Jean Anouilh, major French dramatists - the picture is surprisingly stagy at times. So the best way to enjoy it is to know beforehand that it's pure artifice and nothing more.

I must also add that a key ingredient is missing from this literary movie - literature. We see Lawrence writing from time to time, but we have little access to his creative thinking or his deeply held philosophical views and psychological theories. Even worse, no one ever talks about books except when it's necessary to move the plot along; you'd think cultured people had conversations about everything but culture. The police raiding a London gallery and confiscating Lawrence's paintings makes for a striking scene, but we're never given a good look at the pictures, and it's hard to tell what's offensive about them, since from the glimpses we do get they look pretty tame. If you want a superficial sense of Lawrence's late career, Priest of Love delivers the goods in a diverting way. If you want something deeper, spending time with his books is the way to go.

Ted Moore did the relentlessly handsome camerawork, and the music, by two composers billed as Joseph James, has a bubbly, romantic aura. The director's cut DVD from Kino Lorber supplements the film with several extras: a perky making-of movie, video interviews with McKellan and Miles, out-takes with missteps and blunders, various trailers and stills, and deleted scenes including one featuring Sarah Miles, the director's wife, who doesn't appear anywhere else in the movie. My reservations about the film aside, I have to salute Christopher Miles for leaving Sarah Miles on the cutting room floor because her scene slowed down the story. That's the kind of integrity D.H. Lawrence would have applauded.

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by David Sterritt