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Watered-down Russell film doesn't shock enough

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Produced and directed by Ken Russell.

Screenplay by Ken and Vivian Russell.

Adapted from the novel

by D. H. Lawrence.

Starring Sammi Davis, Paul McGann, and

Amanda Donohoe.

Now playing at the Nickelodeon Theater.


AFTER MORE THAN two decades of overblown, outrageous, twisted filmmaking, one might expect that Russell would be ready to settle down a little. Or at least in his latest film, The Rainbow, he seems to be going for something that might vaguely pass for subtlety. Unfortunately, the diabolical Russell of old still pokes his head through in unpredictable ways. As a result, the film is not wild enough to match the playful excess of Russell's more typical fare, and the film is not subtle enough to succeed as a nuanced work of art. The film is a bastardized muddle instead, with an impact comparable to that of a wet mop.

Russell bases his film on the D. H. Lawrence novel, which tells the story of a Midlands England farming family at the turn of the century. The novel follows four generations of the family as they till the land, eke out a living, and sacrifice personal freedom for the common good. Like other Lawrence heroines, Ursula -- who rejects the family values in the last third of the novel -- is ambitious and sexually precocious, questions everything, and yearns to be different. As might be expected, Russell's film version eschews the dull peasant lives of the earlier generations to tell the story of Ursula, played by Sammi Davis.

(Russell echoes Lawrence's own emphasis upon the youngest generation. Ursula and her sister Gudrun appear in another book -- and the 1969 Russell film -- Women in Love.)

The problem with the film is that it shortchanges the qualities that gave Lawrence's novel its notoriety. Ursula was dubbed the "first modern woman in literature" and "the first 20th century free spirit." True, Russell's version of Ursula is portrayed as a free spirit, even before the opening credits. But in this day and age, her attitudes simply don't evoke the kinds of reactions that they once did. Consequently, the story loses a great deal of its potential impact.

It is true that some viewers will undoubtedly identify with Ursula, and others may be truly shocked by her open sexuality. (She first has an affair with her female athletics teacher, and then she falls for a handsome young soldier fighting in the Boer War.) However, one can't help but be cynical, because Russell is still up to his usual tricks. In one scene, Ursula walks through a beautiful, green meadow as dreamy wisps of mist float all around. Suddenly, the scene turns into a nightmare as a bunch of horses come out of nowhere and chase a thoroughly frightened Ursula to the outlying fence. It's all nonsense, but whereas Tommy (1975) and Lair of the White Worm (1988) were good, fun nonsense, The Rainbow is not all that much fun to watch, and it doesn't ignite nearly as many sparks as his other films.