Ken Russell, who died this week, was one of the UK’s most audacious film-makers so why was he so wildly under-appreciated?
It was gratifying to see that Ken Russell got plenty of column inches in the UK media on his death at the age of 84 this week. The enfant terrible of British cinema in the 1970s and well into the 80s had become somewhat unfashionable and I was disturbed to see that in Time Out’s survey of the 100 Best British Films of all time last year – awash with the work of his contemporaries like Roeg, Anderson and Loach – there wasn’t a single Russell film included. Not Women In Love. Not The Music Lovers. Not The Devils.
When I was at university in the mid to late 1980s, Russell was still a household name and his films – made regularly and mainly in the UK at that point – event outings for students. We lapped up Gothic, Salome’s Last Dance and The Lair Of The White Worm, delighted in their self-consciously lurid camp and identified with his colourful portraits of Byron, Shelley and Wilde. His troupe of actors including Hugh Grant, Amanda Donohoe, Sammi Davis and Julian Sands were young, sexy and game, while old faithfuls like Glenda Jackson and Kenneth Colley acted as a bridge to his golden 1970s period.
After The Rainbow in 1989, he worked frequently but mainly in shorts, TV films and documentaries, and his 1991 US feature Whore – in which Theresa Russell broke the fourth wall and regularly addressed the audience – was a minor curio that seemed to cement his fate as a has-been.
I am not saying Russell was everyone’s cup of tea, but I do believe that his genius was highly under-appreciated in his native land.
This was a visionary artist whose force of personality and strength of passion would produce fearless films unafraid of de-lionizing legendary cultural figures like Mahler or Tchaikovsky, certainly unafraid of breaking taboos, casting musicians and models in key roles or pushing the limits of censorship. He steamrollered over crusty convention and his cinema possessed a vital contemporaneity which remarkably still shocks and impresses today.
After his extraordinary Women In Love in 1969, he produced a series of never less than fascinating films which shone a bright, pitiless light on the dark side of human nature: The Music Lovers, The Devils, Savage Messiah, Mahler and later Altered States. He was also prone to dizzying flights of fancy in the shape of musicals The Boyfriend, Lisztomania and Tommy.
It’s a relief that the BFI is finally releasing The Devils on DVD in the UK after decades in which it has been unavailable. The film, reviled when it was released in 1971, is a powerful portrait of religious corruption and unbridled lust which features stunning sets by Derek Jarman, a wonderfully eccentric score by Peter Maxwell Davies and a glorious British cast. Russell’s control of images and sound to get under the viewer’s skin is brilliant and unsettling.
Russell wasn’t revered in the last decades of his life as he should have been. In fact he was considered with a hint of derision by many and, as the Time Out list illustrates, few contemporary critics hold him in particularly high esteem. Now that he has died, perhaps his films and his career can be re-viewed with some of the respect they warrant. In the UK, apparently, it often takes an artist’s death to bring him back into fashion.