Director of the Month: Ken Russell
Hello and welcome to Director of the Month, your cut-out-and-keep guide to the very finest auteurs in filmlandâ¦
ThisÂ Month: Ken Russell
D.O.B: 03/07/1927 Died: 27/11/2011
Years active: 1964 – 2002
Number of films (as director): 19
Do say: “You are quite possibly the most easily identifiable and wildly originalÂ British filmmaker of all-time, in terms of uniqueness of style and grandiosity of vision… Yes,Â more so than Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock, even.”
Don’t say:Â “Calm down, dear… It’s only a commercial!” – He’s NOTHING like Michael Winner!!!
WhoÂ Hell He?Â When Ken Russell passed away at the end of last year, we here at Days Are Numbers were genuinely really rather upset. You see, Aneet and I had always referred to the great man as “Uncle Ken” (as did many others!), which isÂ perhaps an odd moniker for a shamelessly bold andÂ provocative film director responsible forÂ a handful of the most controversial films ever made in this country.Â But then there was something genuinely avuncular about Ken Russell,Â as much of anÂ enfant terrible as he undoubtedly was. I suppose this “uncle” tag most likely stemmed fromÂ Russell’s many appearances on British television over the last three or four decades (culminating in a stint on Celebrity Big Brother!), and the fact that he alwaysÂ came acrossÂ as cheerily good-natured, despite having been dished out someÂ truly rotten hands by the film biz. But I also like to think it’s because we’re all more than a little bit proud of Ken…
Come on, then!Â Name some great – truly great – British filmmakers? You’ve got theÂ aforementioned Powell and Hitchcock (the latter making most of his great films in America), Charlie Chaplin (who made allÂ of his great films in America) and admittedly a fair few others besides (I’d like to give a nodÂ here to my own personal favourite, Bill Forsyth)… But how many of them could claim toÂ possess the same jaw-dropping panache,Â visualÂ bravura andÂ the bleary, cheery way of manhandling life,Â love and deathÂ that good old Uncle Ken had? Let’s face it, UK-basedÂ BritishÂ filmmakers (with the exception of Michael Powell)Â have never fullyÂ managed to tearÂ themselves free from the constraints ofÂ their social-realistÂ roots in quite the way thatÂ their French andÂ Italian counterpartsÂ have, so thank God for Ken Russell. Through the 60s and 70s, and even into the 80s,Â heÂ acted asÂ anÂ unbendinglyÂ forthright agent provocateur, making the sort of risque, bedazzling andÂ outlandish cinema that had never been filmed on this soil before, and probablyÂ never will be again.
Six of the best:
Billion Dollar Brain (1967)
For his first big-budget film, Ken Russell took on what may initially seem to be a somewhat unsuitable assignment; the thirdÂ motion pictureÂ outingÂ for Len Deighton’s anti-007,Â not-so-super spy Harry Palmer. But what we have here is one of the most impressive films of the Cold War era, and that’s as much down to its tour-de-force direction as it isÂ the source material’sÂ Bond-baiting complexities. The plot sees speccy anti-hero Palmer (played to perfection by, you guessed it, Michael Caine) aidingÂ Soviet Russia against an attempted coup by a right-wing American terrorist group (!), and Russell keeps it slipping and sliding along nicely, before capping it all off with an ice battle tribute to Eisienstein’s Alexander Nevsky.Â YouÂ won’t see that kind of thing in Octopussy!
Women in Love (1968)
SomeÂ films you can’t reallyÂ talk aboutÂ without referring to that scene, and yes, the OliÂ Reed vs. Al-boÂ Bates nude wrestling match in Women in Love is an absolute hoot. It’s also perhaps the most distinctly Russell-esque moment in his entire canon, but let’s not let it distract from the fact that this is one of the mostÂ beautifully crafted and haunting films of the 60s. In turns vulgar, pastoral, visceral and poetic, this is a note-perfect transference of D.H. Lawrence from page to screen, and if anyone can think of a more perfect combination of writer and director, thenÂ please let me know.
The Music Lovers (1970)
The first of three barmy big-screen biopics of the lives of the great composers that Ken Russell would helm, this is also by far the best. A swaggeringlyÂ provocative -Â and not strictly accurate -Â telling of the tale of Tchaikovsky,Â The Music LoversÂ depicts the legendary Russian as a driven and devilish genius -Â a closet homosexual who ultimatelyÂ pushes his neglected, nymphomaniacÂ wife intoÂ the abyss of insanity. TheÂ musical-fantasy sequence in whichÂ several Tchaikovsky rivals – and even friends and relatives – are decapitated by cannon fire to the bombast of the ’1812 Overture’Â is once seen, never forgotten.
The Devils (1971)
Not onlyÂ the most controversial film Ken Russell ever made (no mean feat as we’veÂ already seen), but also hisÂ greatest and perhaps even the greatestÂ British film of the 1970s -Â it is impossible to imagine thatÂ the intense,Â warped grandiosity ofÂ The DevilsÂ could haveÂ been pulled off by any other director. Ever.Â Uncle KenÂ favouriteÂ Oliver Reed is also on top form here as a preening butÂ ultimately noble priest, who inadvertently becomes the eye of the storm when political maneuvering in plague-ridden, medieval France leads to some of the lewdest, most blasphemousÂ mayhem ever committed to celluloid.Â However, as shocking as these scenes are (even today!), The Devils is also a very heartfelt and even poignant film, as devout CatholicÂ RussellÂ unflinchingly investigatesÂ theÂ savageÂ actions an all-too-powerfulÂ organised religion can sometimes driveÂ its followers into taking.
Savage Messiah (1972)
From Ken Russell’s most controversial film, to his most underrated; another biopic, but this time ditching theÂ great composers to focus on the life of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Naturally enough, our hero hadÂ more than his fair share of sexual hang-ups andÂ Savage Messiah centres on hisÂ doomedÂ relationship with a Polish governess almost twice his age. Russell manages to capture the burning intensity of the artists’ notoriously nocturnalÂ working life, and along with some very fine set design from Derek Jarman (taking it down a notch or two from his work onÂ The Devils), we are also rewarded with the mostÂ sourly witty closingÂ exchange in film history (but you’ll have to watch it to find out what that is).
From classical composers and French sculptors, to rocking out withÂ The Who! IfÂ it cried out for aÂ flamboyantÂ rendering with a quasi-religious slant, producers in the 70s knew who to call. A bit of a hodge-podge of an album, if truthÂ be told, this seminal 60s rock opera gets a bombastic boost from Russell’s archlyÂ theatrical staging, psychedelic shock-tactics (Ann-Margaret drowning in baked beans!)Â andÂ cheeky humour. TheÂ most mindbending marriage between rock ‘n’ roll and the movies ever,Â this is alsoÂ strangely moving too.
What about the rest?: At first glance French Dressing (1964) may seem like a fairly run-of-the-mill British seaside comedy, but upon closer inspection many distinctlyÂ Russell-ian traits are already in place (including several quiteÂ stunning sequences set to classical music)… The Boy Friend (1971)Â isÂ a tad overlong and suffers from some rather pedestrian plotting -Â but it also boasts someÂ of Uncle Ken’s most infectiously joyous direction, and a showstopping song and dance routine from none other than Barbara Windsor… Mahler (1974) is a return to the lives of the great composers (Gustav Mahler this time, natch), although ever-so-slightly lessÂ feverish than The Music Lovers, and less memorable overall… Franz Liszt gets a good going-over in Lisztomania (1975), which could well win the title of “Most Mental Film Ken Russell Ever Made”, and it’s pretty fantastic too… Valentino (1977) was the first flop ofÂ what had beenÂ a perverselyÂ commercially viable run of films, prompting Russell himself to ask “What idiot made this?”, although it’s not actually all that bad… An evenÂ bigger disaster loomed on the horizon in the shape of Altered States (1980) a curate’s egg of mindboggling visuals and bizarre sci-fi melodrama which became a byword for bothÂ box-office poison and technical innovation…Â After all that, the S&M-centricÂ neo-noir Crimes of Passion (1984) seems comparatively tame and forgettable… Gothic (1986) is much better (and the first Ken Russell film I ever saw!), being a bonkers, bawdy and, erm, gothic reimagining of the events that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein… Salome’s Last Dance (1988) delves behind the scenes of a private performance of Oscar Wilde’s banned play,Â coming on like aÂ heady mix between Gothic andÂ The Boy Friend, but it soon collapses under the weight of too much farce and too many in-jokes… The Lair of the WhiteÂ Worm (1988) is a totally bonkers blood ‘n’ guts tale adapted rather liberally from Bram Stoker, and if you ask me, it’sÂ one ofÂ the most thoroughly enjoyable British horror films of the 80s… While he would bow out that decade with an underwhelming return toÂ oldÂ D.H. Lawrence with The Rainbow (1989)…Â The engrossingÂ Whore (1991) is sadly the sole 90sÂ effort from a now very much maligned Ken Russell – it’sÂ a cutting response to theÂ pure fantasy ofÂ Pretty Woman as a never-better Theresa Russell (no relation)Â gives us an all-together moreÂ honest account of the oldest profession in the title role… It seems pretty harsh to judgeÂ The Fall of the Louse of UsherÂ (2002) too harshlyÂ as it was made for absoluteÂ peanuts, largely at Chez Russell itself, and even then it manages to retain a sort of winning, grubby charm…
And that’s yer lot, I’m afraid… What’s that? Yes, Ken Russell did direct 90s TV bonkfest Lady Chatterly… And yes, he also directed the frankly insane Uri GellerÂ TV movie Mindbender. But let’s not bother with those now.Â If you’re hungry for more, get yourself on Youtube and check out anything from his early BBC days, before kicking yourself that TV isn’t evenÂ remotely that elegant and intellectualÂ anymore. Additionally, I can’t recommend his first short, Amelia and the Angel, highly enough.
RIP Ken Russell. We’ll certainly never see your like again.