The late, occasionally great, Ken Russell

Ken Russell, 1927 – 2011

The 1960s ‘Harry Palmer’ spy films starring Michael Caine were intended as the antithesis of James Bond. They were downbeat, gritty, and realistic. The first in the series, ‘The Ipcress File’ (1965), opened with Palmer fumbling for his horn rimmed specs and sleepily making coffee. Then Ken Russell, who died yesterday aged 84, was hired to direct the third instalment, ‘Billion Dollar Brain’ (1967).

Perhaps the producers were attracted by Russell’s intellectual cache and documentary film background. He made his name with a string of films he produced in the 1960s for ‘Monitor’, the BBC’s arts show. In themes he would return to in his films Russell’s finest television work focused on artists. His documentary on Edward Elgar (1962) was more than a simple biography with some musical clips. By setting up shots and scenes and using Elgar’s symphonies almost as incidental music Russell placed the composer squarely in his time and setting. It was as much an evocation of the high noon of Imperial Britain as a documentary about Elgar.

Russell took these techniques further in his film on the life of Claude Debussy (1965), which interspersed more conventional documentary film with dramatised scenes from his life. Oliver Reed gave a stunning performance as Debussy, powerful and passionate, and launched his career, a career he spent the rest of his life merrily trying to destroy.

So Ken Russell might have been the ideal director for the hyperrealism of Harry Palmer. Instead, where the ‘The Ipcress File’ had utilised no location more exotic than Balham and climaxed with a strung out Palmer in a disused warehouse, ‘Billion Dollar Brain’ went to the frozen wastes of the Arctic Circle and culminated with a right wing madman’s private army crashing through the Baltic ice on its way to invade the Soviet Union and trigger World War Three. The world had seen a sneak peak of Ken Russell, movie director.

‘Flamboyant’ and ‘outrageous’ are just two of the adjectives applied equally to Ken Russell and his films. Movies like ‘Tommy’, ‘Lisztomania’ (both 1975), and ‘Crimes of Passion’ (1984) are less coherent films than sensory assaults. There seemed to be no idea so loopy that Russell wouldn’t include it. ‘Lisztomania’, for example, a film ostensibly about the life of the composer Franz Liszt, featured Rick Wakeman of prog rockers Yes as Thor, God of Thunder (and Ringo Starr as the Pope), and a plot that saw a musical battle between Liszt and Richard Wagner over the Nietzschean concept of the Superman. His films became bywords for extravagance.

They also became synonymous with controversy. Most famously Russell’s film of ‘Women in Love’ (1969) became the first mainstream film to show frontal male nudity when its two stars, Reed and Alan Bates, wrestled in the buff in front of a fireplace. ‘The Devils’ (1971) with its horde of naked, masturbating nuns remains unreleased in its original form to this day. “Monstrously indecent” said one critic, a “grand fiesta for sadists and perverts” said another.

Russell appeared to shelter from some of the controversy behind a shield of silliness, something he only encouraged by saying he was writing a series of books on the sex lives of great composers with titles like ‘Brahms Gets Laid’. When he entered the Celebrity Big Brother house in 2007 warbling Singin’ in the Rain Russell appeared to be revelling in his role of eccentric. He’d have been called an enfant terrible if he hadn’t been over 80.

Sadly all this this often obscured a ferociously intelligent man, one who thought deeply about religion (he converted to Catholicism late in life) and about the creative process and was capable of producing scintillating cinema.

‘The Devils’, for example, is a stunning exercise in cinematic expressionism; Russell cited Fritz Lang and Jean Cocteau and early influences. Though based on a true story from 17th century France the screen is full of billowing, anachronistic black flags. The sets, designed by Derek Jarman, are similarly dissonant; the cells in the convent where the nuns are interrogated have smooth, white tiled walls evoking a modern day psychiatric institution. Russell is signalling the timelessness of the story.

Russell’s film is about the perversion of ideology, in this case religion in the form of the Catholic Church. The film shows a desiccated Church, become simply an instrument in repression, prostituting itself to the temporal power of the French King.

Oliver Reed’s Father Urban Grandier defies an edict from the King to demolish the walls of his town. Meanwhile Sister Jeanne, a crippled nun played by Vanessa Redgrave, becomes sexually obsessed with Grandier. When she hears of his secret marriage and tells the King’s agents they co-opt the full power of the Church to destroy Grandier and the walls of Loudon by accusing him of sexual deviancy.

The town erupts in an orgy of grotesque sexuality as repression is cast asunder and is proved to have perverted desire so long denied. This includes the now infamous ‘Rape of Christ’ sequence where the nuns descend on a statue of Jesus and pleasure themselves. This was cut from the released film and was the core of the outrage but it is absolutely integral to the movie, a vicious visual of the defilement of faith. Throughout the film scenes of the private, more personal, spiritual rites of Grandier and his wife are shown for contrast.

Along with ‘Tommy’ ‘The Devils’ was a rare case of Russell’s subject matter being matched to his incredible capacity for cinematic imagination. The late medieval Church which Russell depicts was rotten to its core, stinking and corrupt, and he captures it perfectly. Rarely has a film set out to depict such horror and succeeded so well.

Ken Russell’s imagination was capable of producing utter confusion. It was also, as in the case of ‘Altered States (1980), capable of making ordinary material watchable. And, given the right subject matter, it was able to create unforgettable cinema. Ken Russell made some bad films but he never made a boring one.

This article originally appeared at Middlebrow Magazine