Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Lair of the White Worm. A Ken Russell Retrospective.

Ken Russell Publicity Shot!!
Mr Ken Russell.

Watching three films by the late  Ken Russell   can have a profound effect on your sanity and your never look at another film in the same way!! Known as the enfant terrible of British cinema he was born in Southampton in 1927 and started his film career working for the BBC, making some 20 documentary’s for Huw Weldon’s art programme Monitor between 1958 and 1965. The best remembered of these are probably his biographical studies of musical composers. His first feature film was a comedy French Dressing in 1963. This was followed by the only film he made as ‘director for hire’ when in 1967 he directed the third of the Harry Palmer series Billion Dollar Brain.  But it was his next film Women in Love (1969) that proved to be a turning point in the director’s career. His most infamous and best-remembered work is probably The Devils made in 1971. Described as a heady mix of lust, religious obsession, sacrilege, masturbation and nuns, it’s something we will be able to sample again as the BFI are releasing the film on DVD, hopefully uncut for the first time, in March 2012. Other films of note in the seventies were Savage Messiah (1972) based on the life of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and his infatuation with an older woman, Mahler a 1974 biographical film based on the life of composer Gustav Mahler and of course the brilliant Tommy (1975) based on Pete Townsends rock opera of the same name, that was originally written for the rock band The Who in 1969. This courageous visionary filmmaker will be missed even if his overall career has had its ups and downs but no one can deny that he has been responsible for some of the most daring film’s we have had the pleasure to see on the big screen.

Women in Love 1969.

Film Poster.

The Splendid Cast of Women in Love.
Based on the controversial novel by D H Lawrence about love, sex and the upper class, Women in Love (1969) tells the story of two sisters growing up in the sheltered society of 1920’s England. Gudrun Brangwen (Glenda Jackson) and Ursula Brangwen (Jennie Linden) are both looking for the right man, but both want something different from the relationship. Ursula meets Rupert (Alan Bates), a school inspector. Gudrun meets the profound Gerard (Russell regular Oliver Reed), the son of a wealthy mine owner, at a house party given by his rich friends.  Both men already know each other very well. It’s a story that hints at hidden desires and an underlying lust for passion and explores the meaning of love. The film remains a landmark in its frank depiction of sexuality and homosexual themes, who could ever forget Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestling naked in front of a roaring open fire? Probably one of Russell’s most straightforward movies, a lavish production with some great acting, Glenda Jackson’s deeply felt portrayal of Gudrun winning her an Academy Award for Best Actress.  

Mahler 1974.

Cosima (Antonia Ellis)
Written and directed by Ken Russell Mahler (1974) is a biographical film based on the life of the Austrian composer. It stars Robert Powell as Gustav Mahler and the enchanting British actress Georgina Hale as his wife Alma. The composer is unwell and along with his rather disillusioned wife are on a single train journey from where their story is unfolded in flashbacks chronicling a turbulent life. These involve his troubled childhood, his brother’s suicide, anti-Semitism, his conversion from the Jewish to the Catholic faith, his marital problems and the death of one of his young daughters. The film explores his contribution to music as we travel on a journey through his depressing existence. Russell includes the normal fantasy and dream sequences the best of which involves the window of Richard Wagner, Cosima (Antonia Ellis) who objects to a converted Jew (Mahler) taking charge of the German Court Opera. The film won the Technical Grand Prize at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival. Top class filmmaking, but I imagine not to every one’s taste.

The Lair of the White Worm 1988.

I have a theory in that you look at a Ken Russell film with a different ‘eye’ than when you’re looking at other director’s work! The Lair of the White Worm (1988) is a case in point. Bram Stoker based his 1911 novel The Lair of the White Worm on a folk legend from the depths of North East England. It revolves around John Lampton who was the heir of the Lampton Estate, County Durham who battled with a giant worm, probable a dragon, who had been terrorising the local villages. It was from Stokers book that Russell adapted his film. This wonderfully enjoyable nonsense has all the hallmarks that underline Russell’s reputation, half naked nuns, lots of grisly deaths, and buckets of blood, fantasy sequences involving naked ladies, phallic symbols, bagpipes, Morris Minors and a gorgeous looking villainess in the shape of Amanda Donohoe. It’s a daft story, the acting leaves a little to be desired and what with Russell’s tongue in cheek direction! But its great fun with real laugh out loud moments.  

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