Article: Ken Russell 101

‘Excessive’, ‘bawdy’, ‘shifty’, ‘flamboyant’, ‘extreme’, ‘tawdry’, ‘absurd’, ‘shocking’, ‘transgressive’ and ‘anachronistic’ are among some of the adjectives forever synonymous with the late celebrated British enfant terrible Ken Russell. 

The self-proclaimed ‘savior of British cinema’ was then and is now a difficult pill for many people to swallow.  Known for Women in Love, The Music Lovers, The Devils, Tommy, Altered States, Crimes of Passion, The Lair of the White Worm, the prolific filmmaker achieved a legacy that is at once universally revered and tragically overlooked as much of his oeuvre remains unavailable in the United States.  A singular artist and provocateur spoken of the same breath as Fellini or Gilliam, Russell’s closest compatriot may be the equally neglected British provocateur Peter Greenaway for his ornate visual style and desire to provoke outrage with an inextricable mixture of artifice and realism. 

Both a master filmmaker and an impishly subversive trickster, Russell often worked in historical period dramas of recognized artistic or musical figures while clearly placing his own spin on the proceedings, taking grandiose artistic liberties with the text often for cartoonish or outlandish effect.  His most commercially successful film to date for instance, the Hollywood produced psychedelic science fiction thriller Altered States, features a detour where the narrative completely and deliberately jumps the shark into farce before successfully coming back to sci-fi horror.  Much of Russell’s career defining work in the BBC Television Network and earlier feature film projects can be characterized this way, with one foot on this side of reality with the other quick to abruptly step into lunacy. 

This very conundrum inherent in all of his work forms the center of Russell’s vision and explains the ease with which the auteur was able to rouse anger and disgust in his detractors.  You really aren’t sure how seriously Russell himself is taking his own work while watching it, bearing the capacity to win you over with playfulness or just turn you off with the boundaries being pushed.  Not everyone shared Russell’s sense of humor or appreciated his edginess as the director often ran into trouble with censors, distributors and sometimes the subjects themselves.  His short film on composer Richard Strauss, Dance of the Seven Veils, was blocked by Strauss’ estate until the copyright on his music expires in 2019 and his greatest film The Devils remains banned in the United States by the studio which financed it. 

Not for all tastes but far from one to ignore, Ken Russell’s grand and often carnivalesque cinematic visions remain timeless in their ability to enthrall and enrage in equal measure and still display a narrative hook and technical proficiency years ahead of other filmmakers at the time.  With this, the Movie Sleuth takes a look at three of Russell’s celebrated earlier works in independent British cinema, all of which in their own way are essential viewing yet only form individually a small piece of the puzzle comprising this still divisive, perverse and often brilliant director’s eclectic filmography. 

Women in Love (1969)

Ken Russell’s loose, provocative and ultimately brilliant adaptation of British author D.H. Lawrence’s celebrated controversial novel Women in Love about two sisters, Gudrun (Glenda Jackson) and Ursula (Jennie Linden) Brangwen and two men, Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed) and Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates) in post WWI England in the Midlands who embark on their own respective journeys towards love and heartbreak was the filmmaker’s first foray into the mainstream and cemented his reputation as one of Britain’s great directors.  It also established the continuing actor/director working relationships with Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson who give daring and pitch perfect performances, going the full distance while exuding deeply felt emotions. 

It’s now legendary naked wrestling scene involving Oliver Reed and Alan Bates was a milestone in breaking censorship laws with it’s taboo full frontal male nudity.  While Russell himself would downplay the film’s success in later years, this was the first time Britain’s soon to be enfant terrible carved out his niche in the pantheon of world cinema’s greatest intellectual provocateurs, breaking boundaries while reaching unparalleled artistic heights.  Elegantly photographed by Oscar nominated cinematographer Billy Williams with sumptuous costume design by the director’s wife Shirley Russell, Women in Love lovingly recreates Britain’s 1920s with the line dividing the aristocracy and the middle class becoming further blurred with time.  Functioning as a snapshot of the past, particularly in the opening credits sequence of the free spirited and well-dressed Brangwen sisters walking amid dirtied coal miners, suggests a sharp contrast between the two worlds of the wealthy and impoverished slowly converging. 

Paving the way for comparatively lighter fare like Downton Abbey, Women in Love by contrast represents emotional complexity rarely explored on film up to that point with the sexuality serving to further drive home the state of the characters’ relationships rather than merely titillate.  Moreover in the film than the novel, Women in Love dares to explore the loose homosexuality between male friendships and the role it plays in heterosexual relationships with one gaining strength while the other becomes increasingly destructive.  Much like Far from the Madding Crowd, the film and novel are an examination of the overarching influence the region and social structures of the time had on the people inhabiting it.  Though many will philosophically argue the more things change the more they stay the same, Russell seems to suggest as with his later film The Devils the period being depicted is something of a time capsule that only existed in that moment. 

Incidentally, Women in Love wound up paving the road for what would become his anachronistic Tchaikovsky biopic The Music Lovers, sharing it’s themes of closeted homosexuality, hysterics, self-destruction and in a way a medical study.  Although of Russell’s films Women in Love and later Savage Messiah seem to be the most straightforward in approach with little to none of the trademark surrealism and over the top set pieces, of his work it’s the most successful in terms of box office draw and critical adulation.  Visually in terms of the deliberate contradictions being juxtaposed together as well as his use of the zoom lens, Women in Love manages to be dynamic without going overboard.  There’s so much scenic beauty on display with such passionate performances at the epicenter, the experience is hypnotizing and for my money represents the pinnacle of late 1960s British cinema.  While The Devils will always remain my personal favorite Russell effort, Women in Love comes pretty close to rivaling that film’s cinematic excellence.


The Music Lovers (1970)

The first of many biopics on famous international musical composers the director would tackle and arguably the first time Russell showed off his impish, bawdy and subversive sensibility, the director’s 1970 biography of 19th century Russian composer Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) is that rare film that enhances your appreciation for the famed musician’s work even as it distances you away from the man himself.  Seen as a tragic figure from the start, The Music Lovers attempts to portray Tchaikovsky’s internal war within himself as he struggles to maintain an upstanding public image to further his musical career while hiding his closet homosexuality from being seen and the ensuing damage caused by his ruse.  Along the way Tchaikovsky courts the financial support of Madame Nadezhda von Meck (Izabella Telezynska) while forming a marital bond with Antonina Miliukova (Glenda Jackson), all the while suppressing his homosexual longings for Count Anton Chiluvsky (Christopher Gable). 

Told through a series of flashbacks and dreams set to Tchaikovsky’s music interspersed with voiceover narration from Tchaikovsky himself, we’re whisked into the minds of those who knew him as well as offering up Russell’s own anachronistic fantastical visions the Russian composer may or may not have had.  Utilizing his trademark hyperkinetic editing, aided by Derek Jarman’s spectacular set design and being the one and only Russell film shot by the great Douglas Slocombe, The Music Lovers doesn’t offer up a straight faced biopic so much as it provides a glimpse into the mind of Tchaikovsky with an increasingly grotesque and at times perversely disturbing edge. 

Those accustomed to the usual tropes associated with the musical composer biopic will be in for quite a shock at the dark and dirty tunnels Russell’s film travels down with some episodes more horrific than others.  Among the more tragic chapters in Tchaikovsky’s life involves a flashback where the composer recalls his mother’s horrific death to cholera and the boiling water treatment administered to cholera victims at the time.  Equally upsetting is the fate of his wife Miliukova, a nymphomaniac he cannot express physical sexual love to which winds up driving her mad before subjecting herself to a series of sexual degradations worse than most movies today could dare to depict.  Even though this came only a year before his most infamous masterwork The Devils, there were times during The Music Lovers where I wanted to look away from the tragedies unfolding onscreen.

One must also go into Russell’s film as an experience and not take every ounce of it as fact, as the film indeed includes deliberate anachronisms.  For instance, the character of Count Chiluvsky never existed but is a composite of Tchaikovsky’s many gay lovers though it was known his marriage to Miliukova was an effort to cloak his sexual orientation.  The film also dramatizes a fictionalized meet between Tchaikovsky and von Meck when in reality the two only bumped into each other by accident and Miliukova’s institutionalization didn’t occur until after Tchaikovsky’s death despite the film showing her descent into self-destructive madness occurring much earlier.

As always, Russell’s performers act the Hell out of their roles with Richard Chamberlain (incidentally also a closet homosexual at the time) giving a pitch perfect portrayal of the troubled composer torn between revealing himself or continuing the ride the crest wave enjoyed by his musical success.  Glenda Jackson, fresh off her Oscar win for Russell’s Women in Love, might be one of the most fearless actresses of the 1970s.  Going the full distance as the distraught and frustrated nymphomaniac who begins to realize her marriage to Tchaikovsky only used her as a stand in, Jackson almost rivals the insanity portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave in The Devils with zero fear of sex and nudity.  The Music Lovers also features Russell’s stock trade of character actors including Kenneth Colley (Admiral Piett from The Empire Strikes Back), Max Adrian, Andrew Faulds and Graham Armitage, many of whom would also appear in The Devils and The Boyfriend.

The Music Lovers is by no means an easy watch with some of Russell’s transgressions and anachronisms capable of infuriating if not offending the faint hearted.  At the time of inception, many critics took umbrage with Russell’s portrayal of Tchaikovsky and some began to wonder just how much of it was based in truth and how much of it was pure Russell.  Seen now, with some reservations the film is startlingly on point with regard to the many chapters in Tchaikovsky’s checkered past though there’s still debate to this day whether or not his own contraction of cholera was accidental or self-inflicted.  Many including Roger Ebert took Russell to task for including dream sequences attempting to dramatize what Tchaikovsky and others were thinking while listening to his music, including one truly outlandish bit where Tchaikovsky fires off a phallic looking cannon at the heads of everyone in his life who has hurt him, replete with gory close ups of the decapitated. 

What is undeniable about The Music Lovers is that it illustrates perfectly how such wonderful music beloved all over the world can emerge from anger, frustration and desperation.  Tchaikovsky had a lot of skeletons in his closet, some uglier than others, yet none of it is heard in his music which can be described as the purest expression of joy.  While open to debate just how many of Tchaikovsky’s hurdles were through no fault of his own and how many more were clearly entirely his undoing, there’s no question that through it all the man was still able to create some of the finest classical music in human history irrespective of the tragedies occurring during their creation.


Savage Messiah (1972)

After the exhausting shoots for The Devils and The Boyfriend, Russell reportedly remortgaged his home to finance his next project which would sharply veer away from the opulent excesses he came to be known for in favor of something closer to his own struggles as a budding still photographer trying to break into the film scene.  Dialing down the hallucinatory intensity and transgression seen in his last two films The Music Lovers and The Devils, Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah dramatizes the life of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (Scott Anthony) with a surprising amount of restraint and understatement.  Working from a script by Christopher Logue who himself played Cardinal Richelieu in The Devils, Savage Messiah is the closest the director has come to making a minimalist picture, providing an engaging period drama without indulging in the usual excesses he came to be infamous for.

After seeing the provocateur at his most over-the-top and deliberately shocking, Savage Messiah provides a startling antithesis to what critics and audiences thought they came to know about Russell with this straightforward drama depicting the iconoclastic Gaudier-Brzeska on the rise to artistic success while balancing the unorthodox but committed relationship with the twenty years elder Sophia Brzeska (Dorothy Tutin).  As with The Music Lovers, the film focuses on the disconnected relationship the artist has with his wife.  Unlike that film, however, which portrayed the destructive co-dependent relationship with hallucinatory shock, Savage Messiah aside from a couple moments of bombast is decidedly comparatively understated.  Also antithetical to The Music Lovers is the nature of the relationship, which is all but totally sexless and devoid of intimacy yet functional just enough for Brzeska and Gaudier to make it work for one another.  Despite the age difference and Brzeska’s knowledge that Gaudier would go out at night to fool around with prostitutes to get off somehow, their mutual alliance and creative passions are undeniable and illustrate the duo as soulmates rather than lovers.

Much like Pasolini’s bits in The Decameron, Savage Messiah fully conveys the starving artist struggle as Gaudier and Brzeska shack up in a squalid impoverished flat and spend hours up all night striving tirelessly to create commissioned sculptures to be delivered on time as ordered.  You feel every ounce of sweat and dirt pouring down the dedicated individuals foreheads and Russell wastes no time illustrating the dichotomy between those creating the art and the well to do socialites enjoying said art.  Adding to the sharp contrast is a young Helen Mirren as Gosh Boyle, a wealthy suffragette who is everything Sophia Brzeska is not: young, voluptuous in figure and unafraid of sex and nudity.  Helen Mirren might be the eldest actress living today who still carries a heavy scent of sex appeal and her scenes of the free spirited Boyle walking around in nothing but stilettos signify Mirren as among the sexiest actresses in the film business.  Russell even provides moments of Boyle and Brzeska in the same scene together when Boyle visits Gaudier’s flat and jumps into bed with him, stirring the jealousies of Brzeska despite her own disgust for sex.

Russell has always been interested in what Warner Brothers referred to as ‘historic personages’, particularly ones not of British descent, but Savage Messiah represents something of an outlier in Russell’s oeuvre for telling the struggles of creative expression without so much as toe dipping into his usual subversions fans and detractors came to love and hate.  Moreover, it displays how love, friendship and commitment can exist between two vastly different individuals separated by decades of age and carnal proclivities while never losing sight of their mutual dedication to creating art despite the uphill battle of doing so.  Cited by Guillermo Del Toro as among his favorite Russell films for what he called ‘having to be iconoclastic in every area of life in order to be an artist’, Savage Messiah is the story of a little known sculptor in the art world whose struggle and strive for creative expression is almost totally universal in appeal and something anyone who has ever picked up a paintbrush, ballpoint pen for movie camera can absolutely relate to.


- Andrew Kotwicki