PRIEST OF LOVE is undoubtedly the longest two-hour movie ever made. Billed as razzle-'em, dazzle-'em intimate portrait of D.H.Lawrence (lan McKellen) and his German wife. Freida (Janet Suzman), the movie is simply a series of bangs that end with a whimper. Director Christopher Miles has apparently confused action with sex, character with caricature. With Priest of Love, he achieves the impossible. He reduces the pathos of Lawrence last years, spent in exile and pain, to a cheap thrill. Lawrence and Freida leave England soon after the British censor. Herbert G. Muskett (John Gielgud) publicly burns available copies of The Rainbow by court order. They sail to American to seek refuge and patronage from Mabel Dodge Luhan (Ava Gardner), a wealthy rancher in New Mexico. At a party given by Mabel on her vast ranch. Miles reveals his perception of Lawrence's character: Incensed by the Indians performing their sacred dances for the pleasure of the company. I awrence suddenly starts breaking dishes. While it is surely understandable that he does "not want to be part of a literary zoo," there is no reason he should so violently erupt into a temper-tantrum a twelve-year-old would be ashamed to call his own. Lawrence's lack of character development alternated with explosive, melodramatic scenes, make him seem more a psychopath than an artist.
As the Lawrences travel from New Mexico to Mexico. Where Lawrence is diagnosed tubercular, and return to wander through Europe in search of a cure. Miles uses Lawrence's ambiguous sexual orientation as a vehicle for suspense. It is intensely depressing to watch lan McKellen and Janey Suzman frolic in bed with all the emotion and ingenuousness of a whoreand her john. It is even more discouraging to see McKellen swimmaked on his back in an English lake. Gratuitous nudity translates this unmanageable passion Miles seems so intent on portraying into a vulgar act with all the subtlety of a road-side strip joint. Frontal nudity simply adds nothing to the quality of realism.
Ian McKellen, late of Amadeus and the Royal Shakespeare company, struggles in vain to play the part of the genius, falling several deciles short of the score. His Lawrence is less the Martyr of British Censorship than he is martyred by Alan Plater's offensive and vapid screenplay. At the mercy of lines such as."We writers, we're supposed to be brave," or "Better peoplethan me have been crucified," he tempts us to ask why tuberculosis could not have claimed him sooner and so spare us the pain.
Suzman, on the other hand, is given a relatively easier task in the role of Freida. Though adding an unnecessarily, harsh teutonic accent, she brings dimension to Freida that only heightens the absence of a strong Lawrence opposite her. She explains her passion and makes clear her strange love for this strange man, in moving scenes. Incensed at Mabel for questioning whether she is indeed the right woman for Lawrence, Freida launches into a tirade. Her incoherent anger, her rage at abandoning her children 12 years before, the passion so clearly emerging from character development, make us sympathize with this wild woman, and feel her anguish. Suzman's Freida, a Valkyrie of flesh and fire, comes across as The Real Thing, making Lawrence seem The Flaccid Thing all the more.
Ava Gardner, as the prototypical Ugly American, sharing equally of her wealth and herself, adds some lfie to the arid waste left by the void that is Lawrence. But John Gielgud, seen perusing Lawrence's penultimate works, is so intent on depicting the stiffness of the period that he seems to be merely a life-size extension of his starched collar. Penelope Keith, as the Honorable Dorothy Brett, a frigid woman with a crush on Lawrence, can best be regarded as a pasteboard pastiche; this is the extent of her role and talent.
What survives in this aberration of a film is the background. Shot on location in New Mexico, Mexico, London, and Italy, Priest of Love is a visual Beadeker. Miles has clearly made an carnest effort at accurate visual realism. It is a great pity he could not do the same for the animate elements of Priest of Love.