Picks and Pans Review: The Rainbow

updated 06/26/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/26/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Sammi Davis, Amanda Donohoe

Back in 1970, Women in Love demonstrated that the sensual music of D.H. Lawrence's prose hath power to charm the savage director Ken Russell. This film, taken from another of Lawrence's novels, includes a lesbian seduction, an attempted seduction into spanking as a sexual activity, considerable naked gamboling, miscellaneous leering and much flirtation. But, by comparison with recent Russell films (Crimes of Passion, Gothic, Lair of the White Worm, Salome's Last Dance), on the scale of perversion and depravity it would be rated just about wholesome—maybe wholesome with an asterisk.

More than that, the film is also coherent and often involving in emotional and intellectual ways that recent Russell films have ignored (though Crimes of Passion had its striking moments). It is a graceful, unsentimental addition to the growing coming-of-age film annals.

Davis, one of the sisters in Hope and Glory, is just completing secondary school in an English village around 1900. Her loving, if tradition-bound, family expects her to stay at home until she gets married, but Davis wants to exert her independence.

That ambition first takes the form of her happily wandering into a sexual relationship with her phys-ed teacher, played with a wickedly ruthless tone by the gorgeous Donohoe (The Lair of the White Worm). Then Davis pursues an affair with a young soldier, played by the impossibly handsome Paul (Withnail & I) McGann, and takes a job as a teacher.

Davis's open face has a Mia Farrow-Hayley Mills innocence in it, but there's some steel and mischief to her too. So she's effective at maintaining high hopes even when she faces cynicism at every turn—Donohoe ends up marrying Davis's uncle, the school is a pit of nasty students and nastier faculty members.

Russell's perverse nature even gets to enjoy an unhappy ending—or what ought to be an unhappy ending. He and Lawrence seem to agree, however, on the integrity of celebrating youthful optimism, at least for those lucky enough to truly believe in their own invulnerability—for a day, a year or a lifetime. (R)

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