* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Tim Burstall

Written by Evan Jones

With Colin Friels, Judy Davis, John Walton, Julie Nihill, and Hugh Keays-Byrne.

Was D.H. Lawrence a profound “priest of love,” or a proto-fascist, or just a fellow who earned a brief notoriety by scribbling a few novels’ worth of sensual yearning and mystical claptrap? Whatever he was, he wasn’t a screenwriter, and he didn’t care to make life easy for the later and less talented writers who would adapt his work to the screen. Kangaroo, the latest attempt, makes one wonder if filmmakers will ever produce anything but a muddled and mutilated version of Lawrence’s voyages to eros and beyond.

Now Lawrence, who sought to clarify the longings of the human soul, was not himself the soul of clarity. What are we to make of blood-curdling notions like the “mystery of lordship,” the “dark gods,” and “blood-consciousness”? It’s hard not to write them off as the ravings of a chap who contemplated his phallus the way yogis do their belly buttons. And if you’re a screenwriter, the temptation is to skip the philosophical stuff, skim the sensuous surfaces, and settle for soft-core porn.

But Lawrence can justifiably counter that he’s gotten a bum rap, and that really he can explain everything sensibly and vividly. In fact, the frail, fierce pontiff of the life-force treats his autobiographical novel Kangaroo as little more than an opportunity to transmit and expound the “God whisper” he heard. What did God whisper? “Man must find a new expression, give a new value to life, or his women will reject him, and he must die.” (Lawrence sure knew how to get a guy to listen up.) The characters are embodiments of the author’s ideas about the struggle to balance soul and body, man and woman, self and society. Strike out the ideas and you are left with a lot of folks rutting and fretting their hour upon the page — or screen. Certainly Kangaroo is a dauntingly talky book to film, but any paring demands the keenest judgment lest we lose all clues to the motives — and the stakes of the erotic and political conflicts — among the protagonists. In the clutches of an inadequately artful and inventive filmmaker, ideas that are not easily expressed in terse dialogue or flitting images tend to get shunted aside for fear of inflicting on fidgety audiences a “talking heads” marathon. Action, baby, is what the admission-payers want, and doesn’t Lawrence obligingly offer the stripped-down theme — forget his ifs, ands, and buts — that it is our moral obligation to get well and truly laid? Not that the sentiment is objectionable, even in this prophylactically sheathed age, but, c’mon, is that all there is to Lawrence?

Excepting both Christopher Miles’s Priest of Love (1981, an arresting adaptation of a biography of D.H.) and the oedipally charged, coming-of-age Sons and Lovers (1960), Ken Russell can be credited with crafting in Women in Love (1969) the most intelligible filmic try at capturing Lawrence’s essential if slippery ideas. The Fox (1967) and The Virgin and the Gypsy (1970) are pretty meager renderings of minor works. But there is much more in Lawrence’s work worth tapping, and worth the challenge of converting into screen terms. Alas, in Kangaroo the filmmakers simply discard the author’s sometimes long-winded but richly texturing commentary, and the result is a tale of a confused crew of protagonists sluggishly traipsing through the preposterous checkpoints of a thin, elliptical narrative. The glimmering, glossy Room With a View cinematography is handsome — lush polychromatic landscapes alternate rhythmically with honey-glow, lamp-lit interiors — but it’s hardly redemptive. Poor Lawrence, expurgated again.

Kangaroo opens in 1916 on a blustery night at a cottage on the edge of the craggy West Cornwall coast. A pack of supremely suspicious British authorities are hounding two suspected German spies, Richard Somers (Colin Friels, the Lawrence character) and his German baroness wife, Harriet (Judy Davis, winsomely Teutonic in the Frieda Lawrence role). Richard is bearded, a conscientious objector, and an author of some repute who writes “about life, democracy, equality, and that sort of thing”; so he must be a Hun sympathizer. Harriet is a Hun (whose cousin Manfred, the famed Red Baron, with a tally of 80 aerial “kills,” is busy in the skies above the Western Front). A simply beastly British officer informs the otherwise blissful couple that they “have no rights”; a notebook containing Hebridean folk songs is confiscated in hope that, under proper paranoiac analysis, it might yield a German code, a love song to the Kaiser, or something incriminating.

Cut to next week. Richard, nude, is suffering the pokings and proddings of a military physical at the conscription office; also present, a sorry lot of younger recruits. An officer taunts Richard as a “writer of filth”; everyone is so very rude to Richard. But he is tubercular and unfit; the healthier conscripts are just doomed. Richard seems so cocooned in the layers of his own sardonic sensibility that he takes scant notice of the less lucky flesh around him. Is he only worried about saving his own skin, his own erogenous zones? Does he feel contempt for these people as well as for the war? The script denies us access to Lawrence’s generally generous spirited meditations on such things; on screen we are regaled only with the whine of the wounded snob. “No one who has been through the war,” this addled aesthete petulantly declares, “can believe in democracy again.” So Richard and Harriet shove off for Australia. Something is missing in Richard’s obviously erotically fulfilled life: could it be a man who will make the trains run on time?

Far from the madding hoi polloi and the black sponge skies of England, and nestled in a modest, ever so slightly rat-ridden abode in sunny Sydney, the emigres meet Jack (John Walton) and Vicki (Julie Nihill). Jack, an ex-army hero and one of Lawrence’s macho parodies of true manhood, introduces Richard to Kangaroo (Hugh Keays-Byrne, too cuddly for the role), leader of a growing private army bent on imposing “brotherhood” — or, failing that, fascist order — on what is already a pretty tranquil place. Absurdly, Kangaroo fawns over Richard, beseeches him to become the fascist movement’s mouthpiece, and tempts him satanically with a nearly irresistible offer of ideal male friendship (a staple Lawrence theme). Richard responds with stupid coquettishness. But Mama tol’ D.H. he better shop around; so enter Willie Struthers (Peter Cummins), a socialist trade-union leader who likewise wastes his time courting the maidenly writer. (Though Lawrence loathed fascism, and wrote sympathetically if unenthusiastically about socialism, the film presents the choice as pretty much a toss-up.)

Meanwhile Harriet worries whether Richard’s childish striving to become a “man among men” will imperil their marriage. Her raucous humor prevents him from going native so extravagantly as Kangaroo or Willie Struthers might like, and a joyous From Here to Eternity roll in the surf helps restore a relationship that doesn’t look sorely in need of reaffirmation. That’s because Richard is too passive (and priggish, he sleeps in pajamas) to excite the least suspense about his choices; you just know his inertial guidance systems will pull him through and into a full retreat into the “majesty of the single soul.” And it is all a travesty of Lawrence, and, what’s worse, a boring one at that. The wimpy onscreen Richard is a pale replica of a character who, even when saying or doing very silly things, usually has intriguing reasons. The screen treatment, unfortunately, doesn’t so much compress the novel as crush it. Ironically, the filmmakers’ decision to expunge Lawrence’s philosophical flights of fancy resulted in a film filled with disembodied players going through the motions of life against postcard backdrops. Thus we hardly get invested in the single thematic conflict that does make it to the screen — marriage versus ideal male friendship — and even the street clashes between the fascist “Diggers” and the trade unions takes on a contrived air, as if the conflict were all a game, and bread-and-butter compulsions exerted no influence. (In the novel the strife began when management cut wages and tried to smash union organization.) There’s much more going on here than meets the eye, but the filmmakers so thoroughly gutted the material that you’d never suspect it.

Had the filmmakers dared to dip below the surface, tried to help us fathom some of the philosophical undercurrents propelling the characters, we might at least have emerged with a bit of bite, wit, and mischief — a film a bit more like Lawrence himself. As it is, Kangaroo pays Lawrence perhaps the meanest insult by portraying him not as the “priest of love” but, in keeping with the mentality of the Reagan-Thatcher era, as the patron saint of conceit.