Recommends: Top 10 Ken Russell Films
*Some Images NSFW*
Unpredictable, gauche, weird and provocative; words not usually associated with British cinema. But that was what you got with the work of Ken Russell. Christ gyrating, gigantic penises, snake ladies… that sweaty, naked wrestling scene. How he got away with it is beyond anyone. Well he didn’t really.
In constant battles with studio heads, censors and the general public, he was a man of conflict that manifested in his art; relentlessly true to himself whilst poking and jabbing at his critics. If anything, they fuelled his mischief. Yet again and again, the likes of Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed, even Jack Nicholson in a brief unexpected cameo, gravitated towards him alongside a large following of keen fans who are enticed by his strange, mad storytelling
Pervert, heretic and antagonist to the masses, it never stopped audiences flocking to his films. He hardly toed the line at all, rather than ground it into the dirt, flirting with operatic hysteria, camp melodrama, edging into fever dreams, challenging the institutions he despised, taking his actors and production design to the limits of creativity in Fellini-meets-Hollywood eccentricity with a dash of Borowczyk. The works were exhausting. Bending history and art to his will, drawn to the works of controversial writers, he and his large ego found a voice in the larger-than-life figures.
Russell was kind of radical. He had this obsession with the real person and the mythos that followed their notoriety, eradicating the essence of humanity within them and satirising the fandom. Perhaps this was in response to the rise of the fanfare seen through the likes of Elvis Presley and The Beatles just a few years prior. With the ease of travel, the accessibility of international consumption of media, we only saw more of an increase in this fanaticism, or should I say, it was televised. Not that it was a new thing; history has always liked to shame the fan and predominantly the young girls who make up the demographic (is it not utterly dull by now that we devalue things women like as we do with regard to literature, music, film and fads?). But with this knowledge, often Russell would take this, with lashings of liberalism from the sixties and seventies and plant it into history, contemporising the history until there is no difference to the worship of Franz Liszt in the nineteenth century, now considered high-brow consumption, as there was to the cult-like fandom we see today. But I digress.
The key to Russell is to not take it too seriously. I highly doubt he ever did himself. (unless class came into it, then reality TV became a boiling broth of his disdain for all things uncouth - though how did those opinions really unravel? How did he every interpret Lady Chatterley’s Lover? How did he work with Sean Bean, ‘uncouth’ though he isn’t working class though he is?) It was his detractors who took him at face value. Flawed though he was - his depiction of the hysterical woman leaving much to be desired but one of many problematics - Russell was a major figurehead in British cinema. A product of his time and an innovator, he changed what art film could be, its accessibility to wider audiences and reignited the excitement and creativity of British film could display not seen since, I would argue, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
The UK cinematic output is never to be underestimated and though we often come to the foreground with thought-provoking social-realist, rough around the edges crime and introspective kitchen sink affairs, we have as much arthouse and grandiose work as any other national cinema. With the dire state of film funding in the UK, it’s no wonder we do not see the likes of Russell anymore however.
He’s important to film, earning a cult status in the last couple of decades. With the investment of BFI and film critic Mark Kermode, much of his work is now being remastered and released on high quality Blu-ray through various collectors’ labels in the UK including the aforementioned and Arrow Video, giving his works the treatment they deserve. Today I want to try and round up an essential viewing list of his and see if you guys will find any new favourites among the eccentricities of Britain’s most significant and underrated filmmakers.
Savage Messiah (1972)
10. Valentino (1977)
You don’t use Ken Russell films if you need to cut corners on your history essays. You’re not getting the truth; you’re getting his interpretation of a life too mythic to be remembered correctly. Just as he does in the melodramatic Valentino. Dancer Rudolf Nureyev stars as the Silent-era star, Rudolph Valentino, a man whose infamous career moved women to madness with his onscreen sensuality and ‘exotic’ sexiness. Until the talkies came into play. Then producers shook their heads and counted their losses, for his voice simply was not made for sound. His untimely death was so shocking; it reportedly, drove fans to suicide.
Russell takes the story of Valentino and makes his own mythology. Cynical and arguably satirical, it falls firmly into the camp, and stays there. It’s a weird biopic, grotesque in a John Waters kind of way, and ridiculous in the most Russell way imaginable. Yet its Valentino is sympathetic and Nureyev’s lack of acting ability somehow lends the role a vulnerability that makes for a sensitive characterisation of the tragic star. On top of this it’s simply a weird movie, a fascinating take on old Hollywood, and surprisingly watchable after all these years.
9. Gothic (1985)
Youtuber, Film Qualia, in his essay Still Dangerous – The Films of Ken Russell, described Russell’s style as ‘vandalising the past’, in the most affectionate way possible of course. And I couldn’t agree more. Historical accuracy is way on the back burner, practically dragging along the gravel-laden roads. It was extreme, artistic puppetry that made for such juicy Russell affairs. A great example of this, and far from the last, is Gothic. With Henry Fuseli references galore, plus a sexually deviant Gabriel Byrne hobbling about Byron-style, Natasha Richardson sweating and panting in horror and uncomfortable arousal surrounded by skulls, skulls, SKULLS; it’s totally what Gothicism was all about.
Before I knew who Ken Russell was I saw Gothic during my Romanticism phase, as one miserable teenager does. Did I like it? Nope. It was weird and ridiculous. But in the context of Russell and his work I revisited it and found I could say with great confidence that I have yet to see a film capture its subject and vibe quite so well. Taking the fabled stormy night in which Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelly and Dr. John Polidori came together to tell spooky stories, leading to the conception of Science Fictions most significant novel, Frankenstein, Russell plays into the nightmarish evening literally(?).
8. Crimes of Passion (1984)
Russell was kind of too shocking for Hollywood. If the Brits had trouble with him, the Americans were going to be shocked and offended just as much. Yet he was funded for a great many years in ever-worse performing productions. If there is one thing, it proves how pervy the everyman is. The butts in seats, drawn by the curiosity of all things raunchy and shocking, only to be offended upon witnessing it; how very pompous. In Russell’s films, often times a perversity is welcomed, an acknowledgment of the grotesque in archaic establishments as much as there is in base human desire. In the natural acts between humans, we are bestial and depraved. Passion hand in hand with bloodlust.
In Crimes of Passion he explores the duplicity of human nature, guilt and the masks we wear, with the woman of the hour, Kathleen Turner playing business worker by day and sex worker by night opposite Anthony Perkins as the depraved minister. Heavily censored upon release, much to Russell’s teasing glee, stating that one butchering made a particular scene all the more erotic for doing so, it has since gained fandom due to its extreme stylisation. Nods to Magritte’s The Lovers, a rich style with provocative frames, shadow play, equally erotic as it is egregious, what more could you expect from Russell. Visually sumptuous, pulpy neon’s, with stage-like set pieces almost bottle-episodic between Turner and Perkins in stark comparison to the more rabid, sensual, erratic scenes of sexual play, it stands out as one of his twisted yet stirring later classics.
7. The Lair of the White Worm (1988)
I really like The Lair of the White Worm. It’s stupid. And it knows it. Based loosely on the Bram Stoker story of the same name it stars a very young Peter Capaldi, Hugh Grant and a scene-munching Amanda Donohoe, for sure it’s one of the weirdest films he made. Certainly in comparison to his earlier, critically acclaimed work. For many it was evidence of how far he had fallen from grace within the Film Industry; for B Movie lovers, it was a new direction for him. And he drowned himself in the ridiculous.
When a young archaeologist, Angus Flint, uncovers a large, monstrous skull on a farm owned by a pair of virginal sisters, Eve and Mary Trent, he draws the conclusion that it is the possible remains of a mythical beast, the D’Ampton Worm, slain generations before. However, a wealthy aristocrat, Lady Sylvia Marsh, takes an interest in Flint and Eve, and strange incidents occur, it becomes apparent that the Worm still exists. Enter vampirism, snakes and crotch nibbling. It’s so daft, it becomes fabulous.
6. Altered States (1980)
One time Russell explored drugs. And it was the trip no one expected to go on. Audiences had no clue what to make of Altered States when it graced the big screen, and to be honest most people don’t now. It stands out amongst his oeuvre, at first glance far from the style and subject we had grown used to. Gone were the historical ravishing’s, literary lavishing’s and rock operas, in their place he left a psychedelic body horror in the capacity of John Carpenter or David Cronenberg.
Adapted by screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky from his own novel (so kind of literary), taking influences from the experiences of psychoactive drugs, isolation tanks and sensory deprivation to tell the story of a scientist (played by William Hurt) whose experiments trigger what he believes are genetic memories. As his life unravels around him, he goes from one extreme to the next to understand the possible discovery he has uncovered, where horror blur the lines between hallucinations and reality.
5. Tommy (1975)
The first Rock Opera, a satirical fantasy drama, framed around the The Who’s 1969 Rock Album of the same name, starring the band themselves with Roger Daltrey (I read somewhere that Russell thought the singer was one of the most beautiful men he had ever seen…) in the titular role. But wait there’s more. Comparable to an acid nightmare and brimming with blink and you’ll miss it cameos, Tommy stars even more of cinema and music’s biggest names including Jack Nicholson, Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton and Elton John. That alone should be enough to catch any curious viewer’s eye; yet Russell shovels in plenty of spectacle, perversity – that harrowing Keith Moon scene - and wild musical sequences that with get trapped in your head for weeks.
Having witnessed a traumatic event as child, Tommy goes into shock, psychosomatically becoming deaf, dumb and blind. However, in his teens he discovers that he is a master at Pinball, soon garnering a huge following, leading to a messiah-like legacy with those around him forming a cult in awe of his skill. Still, with fame and fortune, Tommy faces hardships and exploitation. In Ken Russell fashion, he doesn’t hold back. Utterly original, a clashing of styles that rattles the viewer’s brains, there has yet to be any music film that compares.
He would later attempt to recapture the magic in a film that has since earned its own cult-like following; Listzomania (1975). One of Russell’s composer- inspired films, it stars Daltrey once again in an utterly bizarre, ridiculous but entertaining tale of Franz Listz. It included one thing Tommy did not: the monster phallus. That’s why Tommy is only number five, of course.
4. The Music Lovers (1971)
Russell had a fascination with the great composers, with this falling into the unofficial series of films he made on various classic musicians, which also included Elgar (1962) and Delius: Song of Summer (1968) to name a few. Though rarely did he stick to the facts, he captured the spirit and the celebrity of his subjects. I would argue the The Music Lovers offers the most compassion towards its subject, dissecting the struggles of a man who was haunted by his desires and losses.
Russell tells the story of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) during his most significant creative years, of his repressed homosexuality and his troubled marriage to the nymphomaniac Antonina Miliukova (Glenda Jackson). The screenplay by Melvyn Bragg is based on the book Beloved Friend, which through a series of letters edited and published in 1937 by Catherine Drinker Bowen and Barbara von Meck, painted a picture of the life of the composer. Told mostly in flashbacks, nightmares and fantasy sequences to the music of Tchaikovsky, this mostly silent film unpicks the composer’s trauma surrounding his mother’s horrifying death and his adult life as he longs for another man whilst struggling to maintain his reputation in the eyes of his fans and patron.
Now considered a great addition to the works of Russell, at the time it was criticised for being utterly farcical. Roger Ebert called it ‘garish private fantasy’, Toni Mastroianni said, ‘The movies have treated composers notoriously badly but few films have been quite so awful as this pseudo-biography of Tchaikovsky’. Many took issue with its historical liberties. However, time has been kind and viewed through the lens of his other works, it’s clear that Russell enjoyed playing with his history. Once again, you never take Russell too seriously; he was a man of excess with a warped imagination and in insatiable need to push boundaries.
3. The Great Passions (1965-67)
I’m going to cheat. I’m going to slap together a series of made for TV films with the BBC that encapsulates the works of great romantics; the BFI have bundled them into a marvellous set which practically makes it essential that they be viewed as a whole – plus I couldn’t choose. They are known as The Great Passions. Early Russell was quite beautiful. Perhaps the restrictions had him revel in subtlety; it suited him. He pushed boundaries still, just arguably more tastefully.
The first of these films is Always on Sunday (1965), a dramatized depiction of the painter Henry Rousseau’s life starring Oliver Reed, his most regular collaborator. This is followed by Isadora: The Biggest Dancer in the World (1966), which explores the obsessive and often outrageous methods of dancer Isadora Duncan and her disregard for decorum. I wonder what Russell enjoyed about her…
The final film in the series is Dante’s Inferno (1967), exploring the difficult relationship between Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his model Elizabeth Siddal. This is often cited as one of Oliver Reed’s most stand-out performances, restrained and nuanced as he inhabits Rossetti. Shot in 35mm and arguably far more reserved than Russell’s later outputs, however, one can sense the passion for his subjects, for art and literature and the complexities of human dynamics with each frame. With nods to other great paintings and beautiful reconstructions of the artists’ works, imbued with a mysticism and fable-like haze to his story-telling, it’s an otherworldly interpretation the sensuous lives of the art world’s most romantic collaborators.
2. Women in Love (1969)
D. H. Lawrence and Russell go so comfortably hand in hand. With his 1993 Lady Chatterley and 1989’s The Rainbow, he just seemed to understand Lawrence; the internal conflict well translated to screen. Often times, it produced some of his more gentile and opulent works, still provocative yet with a pride for sensuality and the aesthetic. Not to say this film is all soft and gentle. Russell got in to trouble for this one too.
Lawrence was mad for his thinly veiled analogies, as much for his blunt vulgarity - it’s probably what ties him so comfortably to Russell and exactly what got the director in hot water… and this was when he was on good terms with most of the British studios. Perhaps it is startlingly impressive that Russell managed to get Alan Bates and Oliver Reed, the biggest British stars of the time, to tumble around naked for three days of filming. Let’s be thankful he did; it is one of cinemas most erotic scenes.
An adaptation of Lawrence’s 1920 novel of the same name, the plot is simple; two sisters (Glenda Jackson and Jennie Linden) fall in love with two friends (Reed and Bates), in a mining town in post-war England, each with very stark differences in their approaches to love, sexuality and commitment.
The fig scene, the wrestling with all its sweat, Bates in the field, the arguments. It’s an engaging, thought-provoking story of the mysteries of passion, love and desire and how we communicate that with another, how we as humans function with the debilitating freedom of our bodies, how it is woman (in a heteronormative frame) who takes the power, he control in the relationship. A marvellous story, it is as relevant as it was upon publication, as it was with the close of the sixties and today as we face a new discourse and liberation around sexuality.
It’s Jackson’s film wholeheartedly. She won an Academy Award for it after all. Vulnerable and strong in equal measure, she is the heart and soul of the film. But I must derail the conversation. I shall confess… Me and my phases. You’d think I would just settle on one personality and that would be it but I can’t help it. You see, Women in Love was a delicious discovery during my Alan Bates deep-dive, one of the UK’s greatest actors of stage and screen, often forgotten when discussing the performers of his era. His diversity in works such as A Kind of Loving (1962), Whistle Down the Wind (1961) and Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) made me find a new appreciation for British film of the sixties. His turn in The King of Hearts (1966) is beautiful … maybe I’ll do a list for him next. Check out Bates. He’s great.
1. The Devils (1971)
When conjuring this list I only needed to speculate what other Russell films I wanted to include. The Devils always had the number one spot. It’s a masterpiece through and through. Having forgotten the existence of Gothic, my second Russell film was this; by some fascination behind the controversy, urgings of Mark Kermode’s reviews and a very specific fixation on Oliver Reed filmography (see, another phase!) I whipped out my purse and bought it. No regrets. Without sounding dramatic, it in fact proved to be one of the most significant films I have seen in my time as a movie nerd. It altered my brain science.
Father Grandier (Reed) and his unorthodox views have garnered him a large following amongst the people of Loudun and the lusty, repressed nuns. However, he has drawn the attentions of the power-hungry cardinal and his entourage, as a wave of religious hysteria and suspicion sweeps France. It is not long before claims of Heresy, Satanism and debauchery are laid upon Grandier and public outcry sends the city into chaos.
Here Russell adapts John Whiting’s 1960 play of the same name and revels in the chaos and perversity of the subject at hand. With set designs, all angles and parallel lines, warping in their severity with those wide angled lens, by the great Derek Jarman, he captures the sterile, clinical world of the nuns and torturers, in contrast to lavish indulgences of the church and aristocracy. The ultimate anti-establishment movies, condemning the Catholic church and Christian extremism in the most eccentric way possible, it is heaving with sultry sexuality of Reed’s hedonistic priest, the delirium-hive of sexually repressed nuns and a fetid wasteland of disease and decay, corpses of protestants on the outskirts of the walled city; Seventeenth Century France has never been so grotesque. And the things those nuns get up to… The violent torture in the name of God.
‘My Hump, my hump!’ I’ll often decry, will be haunted by the image of Vanessa Redgrave licking Reeds weeping wounds in her fantasy of Jesus, and writhing with the bone. You know which bone. Curse Warner Brothers for vaulting ‘The Rape of Christ’ scene, which I have watched, yet to be restored to the films original cut, even years after Kermode’s work in preparing for the BFI home release. By today’s standards, it is still shocking. But it is not unwatchable. Considering Salo is available, Irreversible, even Cannibal Holocaust, surely a manic scene of hysterical nuns gyrating on a statue can’t be that abhorrent to the studio. Let’s keep kicking up a stink to get the film fully uncut!
There you have it, my ranked suggestions for the works of Ken Russell. He’s a marmite kind of filmmaker but there is something for everyone in his outputting’s. Even if you don’t like him, you certainly cannot deny he is a force to be reckoned with, something wholly original and someone we are likely never to see again in British film. I hope you find something new and exciting to sink your teeth into!