Review: Ken Russell – The Great Passions

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Blu-ray. BFI

The first of two new collections of Ken Russell’s seminal 1960s films for the BBC (we’ll be reviewing the other release over the next couple of days), The Great Passions features three of his documentaries about artists, rather than the composers that he was more famous for featuring.

Russell’s BBC work would set the stage for his later career – film biopics like Mahler, Women in Love, Savage Messiah and The Music Lovers were the direct descendent of these TV productions, which had evolved from straight documentary to straight biopic to something altogether more inventive – films that tell the life story of someone in a not always one hundred per cent accurate way, using the film medium to capture the flavour and atmosphere of their work more than simply retelling their lives. The three films here, made between 1965 and 1967, show just how inventive Russell was becoming at this time – and, interestingly, just how daring British TV was back then, allowing interesting and challenging material to have a primetime space, and showing material that you probably couldn’t have gotten away with in a theatrical release.

On the three films here, Always on Sunday (made, like most of Russell’s BBC work, for the Monitor arts programme) is the most light-hearted, if not lightweight. It tells the story of ‘outsider’ artists Henri ‘Douanier’ Rousseau, who quit a civil service career aged 49 to follow his dream of being an artist. Ridiculed and ignored by the art establishment (represented by Pere Ubu, played by Bryan Pringle with – like most characters – a distinct Northern accent, the Paris setting be damned), Rousseau nevertheless found a certain acceptance with fellow outsider artists like diminutive anarchist playwright Alfred Jarry and Apollinaire (though the latter seemed to mock his friend as much as admire him) and later had the admiration of Picasso, who recognised his non-conventional (for the time) talent. In the great tradition of the starving artist, Rousseau spent much of his career in poverty, making more money from equally eccentric musical compositions and performances, but his work is now valued at over a million dollars. I’m not sure this counts as a last laugh – the man is dead, after all – but it does remind us that critical taste is all too often staggeringly unadventurous and frequently wrong.

In a nice piece of life imitating art, Rousseau is played by actual outsider artist James Lloyd, who had actually been the subject of a Russell documentary a year earlier. He’s suitably dour in the role, rarely showing emotion (even after the death of his wife) and having little dialogue – his voice is mostly heard as voice over, reading from Rousseau’s letters. The main narration is delivered by an almost unrecognisable Oliver Reed, grounding the humorous and eccentric film in historical reality.

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Always on Sunday

Wittily shot, and as gleefully eccentric as its subject matter, Always on Sunday is an unexpected delight, and benefits entirely from Russell’s sympathetic approach to the subject (ironically, but perhaps inevitably, Russell himself ended his career making outsider films when the boring mainstream movie industry had rejected him).

Isadora, made in 1966, tells the story of eccentric dancer Isadora Duncan, a person of questionable talent but a fantastic character who was an American Communist who ended up stuck in Russia and caused outrage wherever she went – and so the ideal subject for a Russell biopic, perhaps. Shot at the same time as a Hollywood biopic, the film might have suffered from the fact that the movie makers had bought up the rights to all books abut Duncan, meaning that assorted anecdotes could not be used by Russell; instead, this freed him up to make a film that deliberately flirted with the facts, offering an early example of Russell’s loose approach to the biopic – less following the historical truth and more playing with the idea that sometimes, the fiction is more authentic than the truth.

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Isadora

Interestingly, the film opens with Duncan (played with panache by Vivian Pickles) stripping naked on stage – full frontal nudity on the BBC three years before such imagery became generally acceptable to the BBFC. Imagine such imagery appearing now, when BBC producers fret about being exploitative and sexist when featuring nude scenes in drama.

The film flits from serious drama to light hearted camp, Duncan coming across like a bit of a loon, yet entirely devoted to the art of dance, and its gleeful sense of abandon and celebration of vulgarity – the essential creative element that first drew Russell to Duncan – is hard to resist.

The final film in this collection is Dante’s Inferno – not based on the Dante story, but rather the life story of pre-Raphaelite poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, concentrating on his doomed affair with Elizabeth Siddal, who he had courted for ten years, finally marrying her only to lose her to laudanum addiction and eventual overdose – he buried his book of poems with his dead wife, only to later exhume the body in order to retrieve and sell the work. This moment of excess allowed Russell to open the film with an image straight from gothic horror (Russell had wanted to shot the film in colour, but scenes like this make you appreciate the sense of the gothic that black and white brings to the project).

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Dante’s Inferno

Russell was, by this point, moving from TV into feature film, and as such, this feels very much like a transitional effort – feature length and ambitious (even though it was shot on a laughably low budget) you can easily see this fitting in with his later features like The Music Lovers. Oliver Reed is dazzling as Rossetti, moving from comedic to brooding in impressive style, and the story is grippingly intense, with a sense of the tragic underpinning the narrative (which takes in Rossetti’s relationship with William Morris and his wife Jane, who Rossetti had a tempestuous affair with, as well as supporting characters like Algernon Swinburne – who would have been a great subject for a Russell movie himself).

Interestingly, as an aside: The Reprobate team visited the V&A’s Botticelli Reimagined exhibition the day after watching this film, and it felt as though the movie was something of a primer for that show, which included several of Rossetti’s paintings. While Russell’s film might have been a work of fiction, it nevertheless provided welcome context and history for this work.

These three films are essential viewing – important works in the development of a remarkable filmmaking career, significant in television history (Russell was the first person to liven up the arts documentary and create a narrative style that would be taken up by future filmmakers over the decades) and thoroughly entertaining and informative films in their own right. As ever, the BFI editions are hugely impressive, the films beautifully remastered and with extras including commentaries and the 1966 Late Night Line Up documentary Russell at Work, offering a great insight into the making of Isadora.

DAVID FLINT

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