Featuring Ian McKellen in his first starring role, 1981's Priest of Love explores the latter years of novelist D.H. Lawrence, picking up his story in 1914. The film, directed by Christopher Miles and adapted by Alan Plater from a biography by Harry T. Moore and the letters and writings of Lawrence, moves quickly, establishing that the writer married a German woman, flitting ahead a year later to the public burning of his book The Rainbow for alleged obscenity, and then settling for a while in 1924, as he moves to the United States.
It feels like being tossed into the deep end of a man's soul, but McKellen proves to be a solid anchor. The actor, 41 at the time, had many years of experience on the stage at that point -- he won a Tony for his performance as Salieri in Amadeus, which premiered on Broadway in 1980 -- and made a smooth transition to a leading role in this film.
It helps that Lawrence is a dramatic, outspoken, charismatic character. He's matched in his fiery nature by his wife Frieda (Janet Suzman), who left her husband and three children for him. She is fiercely protective of Herbert; the term "like a lioness defending her cubs" comes readily to mind. With its highly-episodic nature, Priest of Love is structured like a bio-pic, but the focus is tightly fixed on a love story for the ages.
It's relatively rare nowadays to see two middle-aged people portrayed as a loving couple on the big screen. Director Miles does not shy away from the carnal component of their relationship. Though there are brief glimpses of nudity, including full-frontal shots of McKellen, it never strays into exploitation territory. These are two people who are deeply in love and still physically attracted to one another. Even when they are tempted by others, they keep returning to the welcoming arms of wedding bliss.
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