For those unfamiliar with director Ken Russell, he's perhaps best known for The Devils, featuring nuns, orgies and demonisms. Those unfamiliar with DH Lawrence might wish to acquaint themselves with his best known work Lady Chatterley's Lover, which was so naughty that it wasn't published in England until 1960! I suggest acquainting yourself through the 1993 version starring Sean Bean and once again directed by Ken Russell.
Russell's first dalliance with Lawrence was Women in Love, which was not really about women in love so much as the manly bonds between men conveniently expressed through a nude wrestling scene. No, that isn't Russell trying to sex it up- that is one of Lawrence's most genius passages, in what he described as his favourite novel. His second dalliance- The Rainbow- sort of compensates for the misleading title of the first film (which ironically is Lawrence's sequel to The Rainbow). Confused, yet?
Well, our protagonist is. Hopeful young Ursula Brangwen (Sammi Davis) longs for the rainbow, a symbol of her emotional and spiritual fulfilment. She first explores fulfilment through her first love, domineering gym teacher Winifred Unger (Amanda Donohoe- again!); then through work as a struggling young teacher; then through family friend, sexy soldier Anton Skrebensky (Paul McGann-again!). Will her quest finally provide 'the rainbow' she craves?
Like Paper Mask and all costume dramas eventually, The Rainbow looks very dated, with a hallucinatory dream featuring the three lovers chasing around on some rocks that looks straight out of the sixties (it is marginally better than it sounds). And there are some excruciatingly cheesy shots where Anton and Ursula look dopily at each other whilst having fun on the swingboat and then repeat the whole thing again once they're in the bedroom. Of course, we are challenging what a costume drama should be so Russell does not confine himself to the bedroom. In true Freudian heavyhandedness, the couple make love against a tree and a backdrop of a gushing waterfall. Well, it makes a nice poster, hey?
However, there is something interesting about the love scenes. The camera focuses purely on Ursula and her feelings- it is defiantly about her. Now, the point of a costume drama is that the woman finds fulfilment through finding her Mr Darcy/Edward Rochester/other eligible bachelor and the two live in happy equal marriage (though cynics might question Jane Eyre), so how refreshing to find a protagonist who defines herself and refuses to subscribe to any other definition imposed on her, either by a man or a woman.
Now acting is a bit of a mixed bag, as arguably the weakest actor (Davis) has the biggest part and the strongest actors (Donohoe and McGann) have the smallest (no tittering in the back!). Yet Davis's one note of optimism actually works for the film, as we constantly expect the thing that will finally satisfy her- and she has plenty to be satisfied with!- only for it to turn out to be a disappointment. Her acting can't carry the film but her sheer optimism and determination does. Winifred and Anton may be more complex characters in the novel but the film is only a snapshot (the novel actually follows three generations of Brangwens, with Ursula being the last). Sure, the characters are boiled down to their elements here, but they perform their roles well. Donohoe plays the manipulator very well, full of fake bohemian attitudes about free love, and McGann is a great Lawrentian type who provides Ursula with sexual liberation but no personal liberation.
Whatever faults the film has, I think it has such a powerful message as a genuinely feminist costume drama. People go on about life-affirming films but these are more than often simply films you have to keep watching in order to affirm your life. The Rainbow genuinely makes you want to go out and face all the challenges and struggles of life.