Priest of Love is an impressively mounted and acted biopic [from a book by Harry T. Moore] dealing with the later years in the life of author D.H. Lawrence. Reunited with screenwriter Alan Plater who wrote his filmization of Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gypsy, director Christopher Miles takes a somewhat removed and cool look at his subject.
Picture opens in 1924 with Lawrence (Ian McKellen), wife Frieda (Janet Suzman) and their friend Dorothy Brett (Penelope Keith) enroute to Taos, New Mexico, for a self-imposed exile at the home of art patroness Mabel Dodge Luhan (Ava Gardner). Back in Britain, his books have been banned by the censor Herbert Muskett (an effectively stern cameo by John Gielgud).
Key scenes involve the fearless duo pushing relentlessly for the truth in a sexual manifesto in literature and tasteful scenes indicating his bisexuality (with a youth nude bathing at an Italian seashore) and relentless selfishness in inviting Dorothy to bed and then spurning her suddenly.
Too infrequently seen in films, McKellen gives a bravura performance, all the more remarkable for its avoidance of easy empathy. Veteran of a one-woman show on stage as Frieda, Janet Suzman is given her head by Miles and turns in a flamboyant, explosive turn which prevents the film from being dominated by McKellen.