A tribute to the work of Ken Russell

Following the sad death of director Ken Russell yesterday, James looks back at his sometimes stunning body of work...

While his best years were clearly long behind him, the passing of director Ken Russell, one of the undoubted titans of post-war British cinema, still feels like a huge loss for the world of film. Contrarian, provocateur and a lover of excess in all its forms, Russell was a filmmaker whose work was rarely restrained, seldom safe and almost always memorable, although not necessarily for the right reasons.

Despite a childhood desire to be a ballet dancer, it was as a photographer that Russell initially made his name, and it was through this route that he secured a job in 1959 within the BBC.

Working as an arts documentarian during the 1960s, Russell honed his craft, creating a series of artful, evocative films, mainly focusing on composers such as Debussy, Elgar and Strauss. His first feature, 1963’s French Dressing, was a critical and commercial failure, and it was four years before he would direct his second film, the Harry Palmer sequel, The Billion Dollar Brain (1967).

However, it was in 1969 that Russell would finally make his mark with the classic, Women In Love. His adaptation of DH Lawrence’s novel was a classy, sensuous and fleshy affair that garnered Russell his sole Best Director nomination at the Academy Awards and a Best Actress win for star Glenda Jackson. Emboldened by the success of Women in Love, Russell embarked on a series of films during the 1970s that would come to define him.

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The Music Lovers (1970), starring Richard Chamberlain as Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Glenda Jackson as his nymphomaniac wife Nina, was a wild sensory experience that subjectified the mind of the artist and created, in its spellbinding 1812 Overture sequence, one of the greatest set pieces in cinematic history.

For many, though, it was Russell’s next film, The Devils (1971) that would prove to be his masterwork. Based on Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils Of Loudun, this tale of religious hypocrisy and sexual repression told the story of 17th French priest Urban Grandier and his eventual execution for alleged witchcraft.

Starring a never-better Oliver Reed as Grandier and Vanessa Redgrave as the deformed Nun, Sister Jeanne, The Devils was pilloried by critics and both banned by various local authorities and severely edited for its eventual American release. Despite that reaction, the film won Russell a best director award at the Venice Film Festival and the ensuing controversy gave it significant success at the UK box-office.

Between 1971 and 1974, Russell made three more movies, an adaptation of the musical The Boy Friend, the virtually self-financed Savage Messiah and a biopic of the composer, Mahler. But it was 1975’s adaptation of The Who’s concept album Tommy that would propel Russell back into the limelight. Featuring a heavyweight cast including Jack Nicholson, Robert Powell, Ann Margaret, Tina Turner, Elton John and Oliver Reed, Tommy was a potent and intoxicating musical that still packs an aural, visual and dramatic punch.

The similarly musically themed, but less successful, Lisztomania followed Tommy later in 1975, while in 1977 Russell directed the disastrous pseudo-biopic, Valentino, a film he described as his greatest professional mistake. Despite these setbacks, critical and commercial redemption was soon found in the shape of Russell’s first American made feature, the bizarre sci-fi story, Altered States (1980).

Featuring a young William Hurt in his first screen role and shot by future Blade Runner cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, this adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s novel would go on to be hugely influential thanks to its hallucinatory visual style and beguiling score.

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Unfortunately, Altered States represented the pinnacle of Russell’s commercial exposure and his supposedly difficult behaviour on set meant that his time in Hollywood was brief. Though he continued to make theatrical films right up until 1991’s Theresa Russell starrer, Whore, Russell’s career post-Altered States was one of critical and commercial decline.

Two of the films released during this period were the oddball gothic horror films, Gothic (1986), which starred Gabriel Byrne, and The Lair Of The White Worm (1988), which featured Amanda Donohoe and a young Hugh Grant. Though overlooked at the time of their release, both have developed something of a cult following and are interesting additions to Russell’s filmography, even if only for their curiosity value.

Ironically, the most highly regarded feature of Russell’s late career was his adaptation of DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow (1989). While nowhere near the class or caliber of his earlier Lawrence adaptation, The Rainbow featured a number of good performances, most notably from Glenda Jackson as the mother of her character from Women In Love.

While many will talk about Russell’s eccentricities and excesses, and others will no doubt evoke his, frankly, shambolic appearance on 2007’s Celebrity Big Brother, I’d suggest we’d be better served remembering him for the legacy of provocative, intelligent and occasionally brilliant movies that he leaves behind. 

Ken Russell was a genuine one-off. A great British eccentric, he was a lover of high art and low vulgarity and, when all the stars aligned, one of the finest directors in the history of cinema. That’s all you need to know.