Ian McKellen stars in his first major role as D.H. Lawrence in Christopher Miles’ rather obscure film Priest of Love. Although the film lilts from episode to episode without a real sense of narrative momentum, it thankfully tiptoes around staid biopic conventions and has a stable of excellent performances to rely on.
The film opens with the banning and burning of Lawrence’s sexually frank novel The Rainbow, with the charge led by blustering government prosecutor Herbert Muskett (John Gielgud). Accompanied by his feisty German wife Frieda (Janet Suzman), Lawrence leaves England and the two travel the globe, often with their awkward and almost completely deaf friend Dorothy Brett (Penelope Keith) in tow.
Their travels first bring them to New Mexico, where they live on the ranch of wealthy benefactor Mabel Dodge Luhan (Ava Gardner), followed by excursions to Mexico and Italy. Throughout, Lawrence must battle with his own failing health due to tuberculosis, troubles with censors for his painting and literature, and his own wife, whose bellicose personality certainly keeps things lively.
The film culminates with the publication of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, inspired in part by Frieda’s own views on sex and vehemently opposed by the British government for its explicit themes and language.
Priest of Love doesn’t really get into Lawrence’s troubles with authority in any substantive way, opting instead to focus primarily on his relationship with Frieda. This works to the film’s advantage, as Suzman and McKellen prove to be adept sparring partners, allowing their passions to spill out for good and for bad. McKellen imbues his portrayal of Lawrence with a mysterious, almost unknowable quality that makes him rather more interesting than many a crusading biopic hero. Of course, the legendary Gardner is delightful in her role, embracing Luhan’s eccentricities with relish.
Miles gets lots of help in the locations department as the film’s beautiful American Southwest and Italian locales pretty much ensure an attractive film. They prove to be an appropriate backdrop for the film’s bursts of passion, which are admittedly, more implied than shown.
Kino’s release of the film runs 99 minutes, while most Internet sources claim a 125-minute runtime. For what it’s worth, this release features a prominent “Director’s Cut” banner on the back cover, so I guess it’s safe to assume Miles prefers the brisker cut. (If there ever even was a longer one to begin with.)
The Blu-ray Disc
Priest of Love is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Kino has really done right by the film, presenting a transfer that looks pleasingly film-like and features vibrant colors, most notably in the New Mexico and Mexico scenes, where reds and blues really pop. Fine detail is apparent in both objects and facial features, and aside from a few soft scenes, the image is reasonably sharp. There is some pulsating, likely due to print damage, noticeable as the film begins, but there aren’t any major blemishes to speak of.
Audio is presented in an uncompressed monaural track that is serviceable, although there’s a low hiss in the background as the film begins. Not long into the film, I got acclimated to it, and didn’t really notice it again, but it’s prominent enough to be an annoyance for some.
It’s actually a fairly stacked edition here, with a 25-minute making-of featurette leading the way. McKellen is interviewed by Miles in an exchange that appears to have taken place some time in the past decade, while an archival interview with Miles from a British talk show is also included.
A handful of deleted scenes are accompanied by commentary from Miles that can’t be turned off. A few unexciting outtakes, some related trailers and three photo galleries round out the disc.
The Bottom Line
Priest of Love isn’t a forgotten masterpiece waiting to be rediscovered, but it gets by on the strength of its cast and an inherently fascinating lead character.