Women in Love

Rachel Cooke is seduced by an unfaithful adaptation of D H Lawrence.

Women in Love

Even at the peak of my blue-stocking phase, when I used to bash through fat novels as if they were meringues, I loathed D H Lawrence. The tedious obsession with sex. The terrible, euphemistic prose. The chippiness. The plodding symbolism. The way his characters, in the absence of anything approaching a plot, talk endlessly of completion and (yuck) emptying themselves. The creepy way he projects his own desires on to his women. The latent incest hanging over family life, like some poisonous miasma. Even Sons and Lovers, probably the least offensive of his major novels, makes me feel queasy. I have only to think of the moment when its hero, Paul Morel, gazes tenderly on his mother's age-spotted hands to want to rid myself of my breakfast.

I'm not alone. Save for the hullabaloo surrounding the Chatterley trial, Lawrence has been mostly unfashionable since his first novel was published in 1910. Yet he has his fans, and these poor souls tend to be almost demented in their devotion. Take William Ivory, writer of BBC4's Women in Love (24 and 31 March, 9pm). According to a piece he has written for the Radio Times, Lawrence is the "greatest English novelist of the 20th century" because "he shouts so loudly". Why does he shout? "Because the kingdom he is hoping to direct us towards is not merely a desirable place, it is the only place." And what happens in this, er, "kingdom"? Apparently, it's a land where "humanity [is] at the heart of the sex act". Poor Mr Ivory. He's got it bad, hasn't he?

Having failed to digest this teenage bilge, I was dreading watching the thing - but his drama is as enjoyable as something by Lawrence could be. I liked it a good deal more than Ken Russell's 1969 film, in which Ollie Reed and Alan Bates flashed their bits and passed it off as high art. There were two reasons for this. First, the adaptation is relatively brief. Ivory has turned a little of The Rainbow and a lot of Women in Love, both of which are long and rambling, into two 90-minute films. Result: the mysticism and navel-gazing are kept to a minimum.

Second, it has a marvellous cast: a bunch of actors who could make almost anything sound alive. The Brangwen sisters, Ursula and Gudrun, whose "journey" to fulfilment lies at the heart of Women in Love, are played by Rachael Stirling and Rosamund Pike. The only criticism I have is that Pike has no trace of an East Midlands accent, which separates her from the rest of the family far more than her unnerving, milky beauty. Otherwise, both of them are excellent: feline, wondering, excitable, trapped and liberated by turn.

Meanwhile, their future lovers - the colliery owner Gerald Crich and his school inspector pal, Rupert Birkin - are depicted as two tightly coiled springs by Joseph Mawle and Rory Kinnear. Then there are Saskia Reeves and Ben Daniels as the Brangwen parents, Anna and Will. Reeves plays the housewife martyr superbly. Your fingertips tingle with irritation every time she comes into view, bearing a tea tray. But Daniels's performance is the more affecting. The scene in which he offers Gudrun his bag of lemon sherbets as he waits with her for her train to London - the city of lustful adventures - is shot through with unspoken love and worry.

Ivory has, needless to say, taken a few liberties with the text. I remember that Rupert was secretly hot for Gerald, but I cannot for the life of me recall the scene in which he tried to cop off with a soldier in a lavatory, only to be punched in the face for his trouble. But then, television requires something more than circular conversation, doesn't it? I don't suppose we can blame him for adding incident. And there are still lines such as this one: "You do not accompany me . . . into the unknown . . . into wonder." (Translation: "You just don't do it for me in bed.") Generally, though, this is beautiful to watch, unexpectedly fascinating and, thus far, blessedly free of nude wrestling.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?