“People say, ‘Oh, he’s got bad taste,’ or whatever,” said composer Peter Maxwell Davies of helmer Ken Russell. “Well, of course he has — thank God for that!”
Indeed, a robust, unabashed vulgarity was essential to the charm of Russell’s films. A Romantic in the original 19th-century sense of the word, Russell reveled in the depiction of lush, unbridled emotion, as extreme as it could go, crafting imagery that could be swooningly beautiful one moment and rankly repugnant the next — often, in films like “The Devils” (1971), only a splice apart. He never, as the English say, did anything by half.
If a reader — say an educated one from Mars, but with some familiarity with culture here on Earth — knew nothing about Russell, a cursory glance over his filmography would suggest a devotee of high art.
His resume features plenty of literary adaptations (several D.H. Lawrence novels, including 1969’s “Women in Love,” 1989’s “The Rainbow” and 1993’s “Lady Chatterley” for TV, as well as Oscar Wilde’s “Salome’s Last Dance” and Bram Stoker’s “The Lair of the White Worm,” both in 1988), alongside period dramas about writers and performers (1977’s “Valentino,” 1986’s “Gothic”) and bio-pics about the classical composers he adored (1970’s “The Music Lovers,” 1974’s “Mahler” and 1975’s “Lisztomania”). Russell was also a learned aficionado of opera and classical dance (he aspired to be a ballet dancer in his youth), art forms that feature frequently in his films.
However, the passionate, lusty way he tackled such material couldn’t be more different from the dry, elegantly restrained style that’s come to characterize British period drama and literary adaptations.
Well into his dotage, when he started making ultra-low-budget pics literally in his own back garden, Russell remained an enfant terrible of the film world; he even looked a bit like an overblown, florid baby in his later years, with his twinkling blue eyes and colorfully garbed, rotund form. As strange as it might seem to say of a helmer who in “The Devils” filmed a scene of frenzied, naked nuns pleasuring themselves on a full-size effigy of Christ on the cross, there was an essential innocence about his work, a reverence for nature and a rapturous devotion to life’s most primal pleasures: sparkly textures, soaring music, beautiful naked women, among many other things.
Although born in 1927 and technically too old to qualify as a baby boomer, and politically a conservative according to some reports, Russell hit his artistic stride in the Swinging ’60s, and the counterculture sensibility of those times haunted his work. Sure, “Women in Love” is set immediately after WWI ended in 1918, but every frame of it feels embedded in 1969, from the blithe, quasi-hipster way the characters talk to the let-it-all-hang-out exuberance of the famous naked wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed (Russell’s male muse), which pushed the boundaries of censorship at the time.
He pushed them perhaps too far for some with “The Devils,” which shed scenes of sexual explicitness and extreme violence at the behest of first Warner Bros., then of the British censors — the way an Afghan hound loses hair in summer — before its release. And yet, it is in some ways Russell’s masterpiece, ravishing in every sense, thanks to the outstanding perfs Russell coaxed from thesps Reed, Vanessa Redgrave and Dudley Sutton; the exquisite, starkly monochromatic production design by young Derek Jarman; and elaborate costumes by Shirley Russell, the helmer’s first wife, who collaborated closely with him on some his best-known films including “Women in Love,” “The Boy Friend” (1971), “Tommy” (one of his rare dalliances with pop music) and “Lisztomania.”
If his work from the late 1960s and ’70s will stand as Russell’s best, there was still energy, visual flair and a very English eccentricity to admire in those that followed, even those he shot Stateside such as “Altered States” (1980) or “Crimes of Passion” (1984), or those that were critically reviled at the time, like “Gothic.”
But then, Russell never much cared what critics thought, and has the distinction of being one of the few directors caught on camera bashing a film critic (Alexander Walker) over the head with a copy of the critic’s own review.