Ken Russell Essay - Critical Essays

Russell, Ken


Ken Russell 1921–

British director, scriptwriter, and photographer.

Russell is known for his idiosyncratic biographies of artists in which he both sensationalizes and psychoanalyzes his subject. He is a controversial filmmaker, for some critics find his vivid, often grotesque, depictions of humanity drastically overdone. In Russell's best work, such as Song of Summer, he is innovative, depicting the creative struggles of an artist combined with a perceptive understanding of the artist's personal life. Less successful attempts, like Lisztomania, are daring technically but as character studies superficial, relying on graphic details and shock appeal to win an audience.

One of Russell's first attempts at filmmaking was the creation of a television series on composers for BBC. Many of his stories such as those of Isadora Duncan and Richard Strauss, both awed and appalled audiences. As Russell continued making the films in the BBC series, each one became increasingly involved in the subject's psychological development.

His first full-length films were unsuccessful, until his adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love established him as a film director. Later films, including the controversial The Devils, developed his increasing interest in decadence, perversion, cruelty, sexual repression, and sexual inadequacy. Russell's exaggerated, voyeuristic style is unique, owing creative inspiration to no previous directorial influence. Though a few of his films have received critical acclaim, Russell's talent is generally considered obscured by his taste for the outrageous. When Russell was asked why he wanted to shock people, he replied, "I want to make people extraordinary. Because the more people realize they're extraordinary, the better they are. Really, I want everyone to freak out."

Allen Eyles

[French Dressing has a] flimsy story—and indeed a tired old script—but it has been made with spirit and gusto into an enjoyable spree that's running, jumping and hardly ever standing still.

Ken Russell has struck out boldly to create a broad, nutty world of his own that is given depth by the natural settings (mostly Herne Bay) but never compromised by awkward glimpses of real and unexaggerated behaviour. It's a world of 'What the Butler Saw' machines, paper Union Jacks, municipal bands and formal dress, sly sniggers and petty ideas, watched bemusedly from the Outside…. (p. 24)

But, as a whole, French Dressing lacks bite: its vision is blinkered and superficial, bashing at the same old inoffensive targets. Aren't the real Gormleighs ridiculous enough, or would some pressure group not like it? (p. 25)

Allen Eyles, "'French Dressing'" (© copyright Allen Eyles 1964; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 10, No. 10, July, 1964, pp. 24-5.

Richard Davis

[The story of Billion Dollar Brain is apparently as confusing to the central character, Harry Palmer,] as it is to us. He drifts through the whole thing looking at times bewildered, at times merely bored, and quite honestly I wasn't surprised….

Particularly sad is that this hotch-potch is directed by Ken Russell…. He has always embraced the complex structure in his work, and he is one of the few genuine stylists working in the British cinema. Nevertheless, I would rather have seen him tackling a more compatible subject…. [Harry Palmer] is the nearest thing to a Le Carre hero the comic-strip has yet thrown up. Now he is required to enter Bondland and he just can't cope. Perhaps the whole thing is just another symptom of the imminent demise of the cycle.

Richard Davis, "'The Billion Dollar Brain'" (© copyright Richard Davis 1968; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 14, No. 4, January, 1968, p. 24.

Ian Leslie Christie

[Women in Love emerges] not so much as an 'adaptation' of Lawrence's monumental novel, but as a kind of critical recreation. From the opening sequence, in which Gudrun and Ursula's half-sophisticated, half-innocent discussion of marriage is deftly punctuated by a passing couple with pram, the film develops as a dialogue between Lawrence's exploration of the freedom and submission of love and Russell's own distinctive vision….

[Birkin has] been 'transposed' … but, more important, [he] has been re-created in terms of the film's own complex visual 'significance'…. Of course the novel has its unique significance and means of signification; it also exists as a cultural fact for both the film's makers and audiences. Merely to simplify and transpose it would be an impertinence. But what Russell and his scriptwriter producer Larry Kramer have made is a film about the novel, rather than of it.

Doubtless it will still offend many Lawrentians; for one strand of the film's response to the novel is to find a number of occasions for broad humour—as in a bemused miner's sudden collision with a hanging carcass in the market while Gudrun taunts him provocatively; or when Loerke, the materialistic sculptor, casually flicks ash on to Ursula's plate. But, more generally, it stands or falls as a structure of sharply individualised sequences exploiting the range of Russell's ability to convey his meaning in purely cinematic terms. (p. 50)

Ian Leslie Christie, "'Women in Love'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1970 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 39, No. 1, Winter, 1969–70, pp. 49-50.

Gordon Gow

A gift for hyperbole has been noted in Ken Russell's work before now, and it is argued both fulsomely and aptly to his remarkable film about Tchaikovsky [The Music Lovers]. Since much of this composer's work has been construed as a romantic compensation for the personal torments of his life, Russell's method is justified. Passages of great beauty are contrasted with a pronounced ugliness, as for example in Tchaikovsky's memory of the hot bath given his mother in a futile attempt to save her from death by cholera. This has its dramatically valid purpose, of course, because the same treatment was used without success when the son died of the same disease: therefore we get a double dose of grotesquerie…. Such incidents, to which Russell's film is rather prone, are not only pertinent to the hypersensitive state of mind he is depicting—they are also brilliantly cinematic. Yet, for my own taste, I find them in the long run too much. It would be unfair not to acknowledge their viability in a work that affords us an impression of the artist's psyche, as distinct from a mere documentation of the known facts about his life and work; nevertheless they have a tendency to outweigh the heady splendours of the passages which are superbly aligned with the music itself, the calculated flights of romanticism that echo visually the melodic graces and raptures of the composer's wishful imagination. (p. 47)

Rather an excess of footage … has...

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Robert F. Knoll

Ken Russell's film version of D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love is a love's labor's lost: much attention is paid to the letter and spirit of the original, yet the film accentuates the novel's weaknesses and doesn't suggest many of its (admittedly linear) riches and strengths. This film is a serious attempt at "art," for no exchange of dialogue is free from the burden of love, death, sex, or interpersonal relationships….

Women in Love, as a film, achieves a gritty documentary-like authenticity when it explores the social milieu of the lower classes. The envious glances of bedraggled coalgathers at the clothing of the Brangwen sisters; the grimy-faced occupants of the street car, who form a silent defeated backdrop to the dialogue capture in sheerly plastic terms Lawrence's quality of felt life. (p. 1)

The wealth of Lawrencian natural symbols, which serves more than anything else to vivify theme in the novel, is treated ambiguously by Russell and Larry Kramer, his producer and scenarist. The sexual content of the conversations about figs and catkins are blatantly illustrated in biology textbook fashion, while the use of chalice-like cups to stress the sacramental quality of nature in Birkin's concepts is handled almost unobtrusively.

The animal imagery employed indicates better the seemingly random selection of symbols from the novel. Gerald comes thundering up to a railroad crossing on horseback and lashes his beast repeatedly as it rears up against a bypassing train. The Brangwen sisters are...

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Stanley Kauffmann

Seeing [The Devils] made me glad, for the first time, that both Huxley and Whiting are dead, so that they are spared this farrago of witless exhibitionism.

Russell has insured that, through every moment of the picture, we are paying attention not to the great themes of spirit and truth, morality and immorality, but to him. The camera whirls, the smoke wafts in and out, the lights flicker, the music whoops up the frequent climaxes, the editing palpitates, the angles of vision are mostly eccentric….

And what is the self that Russell is so proud of? Part misunderstood German expressionism, part diluted Bergman (out of The Seventh Seal), part diluted Eisenstein (out of...

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Gordon Gow

Those who do not feel that they have supped quite full enough of sensationalism might find themselves more replete after savouring Ken Russell's latest dish. The policy of shocking people into awareness is applied very strongly in The Devils; a demonstration of the horrors that can be caused by excessive denial of the flesh….

Russell could no doubt have gone to even more startling extremes, which would have been viable dramatically. As things stand, the visuals are pretty hair-raising. At the beginning, we have a balletic prelude given by Louis XIII for the delectation of Richelieu, who looks understandably impatient at the quality of the dance, and then we plunge into the potent stuff: on...

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Alan Warner

Certainly one school of thought will disagree with the method by which the Sandy Wilson musical [The Boy Friend] has been transferred to the screen yet one must always remember to credit Ken Russell with an understanding of and a yearning for the cinema in its most flamboyant and visual form. The original setting of the 'twenties musical is used as the basis upon which the screenplay has been built….

[The] much-publicised sequences are [those] in which Russell works [the 1930's film director and choreographer] Busby Berkeley kaleidoscopic formulas to an intense degree…. (p. 49)

Overall one feels that whilst Berkeley's routines were bordering on the self-indulgent, Ken...

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Pauline Kael

It would be convenient to be able to say that Ken Russell's "Savage Messiah" is bad strictly on formal and technical grounds, but that would, I think, be fundamentally a lie. It is very poor technically; but that's not all that makes it bad….

Is there any other movie director with the flair and imagination and, yes, the force of Ken Russell who has so little actual command of what is generally considered "film technique"? "Savage Messiah" starts by lunging into the middle of a situation and then just keeps throwing things at you. It's more hurried than his other films, and not so visually lush. You feel as if it were rushing through the projector at the wrong speed and with the sound turned up to...

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Peter Mezan

Russell's movies present something of an enigma, since nobody is too sure who likes them. While art-theatre habitués say that Russell is commercial, the studios seem to feel he is too stylized for the masses and must therefore, by elimination, be art theatre. Where the confusion arises is that Russell's stylizations, while undoubtedly very arty, aspire to the peculiarly unserious condition of a kind of scurrilous cartoon realism in which queening, transmogrified Classics Illustrated characters enacting fancy-dress charades speak lines so banal that nothing anybody says can make the slightest difference to anybody else; in which whole lifetimes are reduced to a handful of hyper-romanticized traumas, climaxes of...

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Robert Phillip Kolker

["Excess"] and an unrelentingly ironic point of view have probably been the qualities most responsible for the critical hatred of Russell's past work. His almost obsessive desire to destroy pretense and smash romantic icons seems to guarantee an adverse reaction. And an adverse reaction is bound to come each time he realizes this desire with vitality and an approach to cinema that does not admit of subtlety or moderation. But the reaction is quite urfounded. To be offended by a style without analyzing the reason for the style suggests critical self-satisfaction and cowardice, two qualities Russell is always attacking in his films.

Russell sees the artist as a man or woman of heightened sensibilities...

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Michael Dempsey

Compared to other Russell movies, Savage Messiah is actually rather restrained, although like them it gets involved in role playing, theatrical behavior, comedy, madness, and the transcending of everyday life. As Tchaikovsky does in The Music Lovers, Gaudier equates life and art. Like Tchaikovsky's women or Sister Jeanne in The Devils, Sophie lives in an ethereal realm of fantasy harshly at odds with the surrounding material world—in this case, a world of starving artist's poverty that requires her to grub for half-rotten vegetables or menial jobs and to hole up in a hovel that roars with the din of trains and traffic overhead. But here things change. Insanity, self-destruction, death menace or...

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Judith Crist

The cinematic synthesis of Ken Russell and the Who's Tommy is a meeting of the mush-minds, a resplendent union of the rococo and the rock of which each is master…. If Tommy, still so completely satisfying an aural experience, must be turned into a visual one as well, it now seems that the opera and Russell were meant for each other, or at very least serve each other well.

"Experience" is the word for this two-hour film, a medley of literal bits and surreal pieces, of psychedelic effects and romantic realism, of crude comedy and sophisticated suggestions, all eye-catching, most mind-engaging, some simply stunning, and a few merely bemusing….

The "mush-mindedness" of...

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Stanley Kauffmann

Ken Russell seems to be the man for high school students of the '70s. His style is ultra-cinematic in the least demanding way—it can be called the TV commercial in excelsis, all split screens and star bursts and swiftly changing colors and anything else that's handy, all the time. For the adolescent, both young and old, who thinks that filmmaking virtuosity is all of filmmaking, he is ideal. His grotesqueries with the life of Tschaikowsky and with John Whiting's play The Devils were reticence itself compared with Tommy…. [For Russell's high school judgment of Tommy as "the greatest art work of the twentieth century,"] his film is the perfect cinematic equivalent. (p. 33)


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David Wilson

Intermittently inventive, always lively, [Tommy] remains a series of separate units linked only by a disparate if vigorous style. Which is a fair capsule description of Russell's film-making style.

Not surprising, then, that Tommy represents both the best and the worst of Ken Russell, often within the same sequence…. Russell's visual representations of the score (already, in 'Quintaphonic' sound, well into aural extravagance) are here merely aggravating annotations—in, out and zoom it all about like some nightmare conjunction of TV soap operatics and TV commericals. The rest, as nearly always in Russell's cinema, is bits and showpieces. And it would scarcely be worth noting did it...

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Stephen Farber

[Even] Russell's bitterest enemies would not deny that he has his own distinctive vision. His baroque visual effects are easily identifiable…. Characters and episodes from one film are re-interpreted later….

These relatively simple connecting links point to a more comprehensive thematic unity. Many of Russell's obsessions can be traced to his television films. One of the quintessential Russell images appears in Dante's Inferno, his film on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, when the poet, who has buried a volume of poetry with his first wife, goes to dig up the coffin and retrieve the poems—art snatched (quite literally) from the jaws of death. Russell is haunted by images of physical and mental...

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Derek Elley

[Lisztomania] carries the photographic splendours of The Devils and Tommy to their absurdist limits. Russell's professed intention to deflate the pomposity of his musical subjects has taken many forms over the years…. Lisztomania again breaks new ground: this time there is no underlying affection for the artist in question, merely a desire to use his name, a few of his compositions, and some of the personalia of the period, to forge a celebration of the rock scene in nineteenth-century dress. Russell is still working in a post-Tommy haze, and it is almost coincidence that his subject is from the field of classical music….

To parallel Liszt with the modern pop...

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Joseph A. Gomez

Ken Russell's methods of adaptation and his extravagant style of filmmaking have been grossly misunderstood, but the usual naive pronouncements of film critics can no longer be considered justified. Ken Russell is not a "compulsive Hollywoodizer" who distorts facts in order to outrage audiences for the sake of pure sensationalism. He does not "murder" his subjects, and his films are not examples of "bad art". He is not motivated by sadism or "egoistic frenzy". He is not driven by cruelty or insanity to embrace excessiveness, and his films are neither "degenerate" nor "despicable". True, they do cultivate a baroque vulgarity, and they are frequently punctuated with bizarre humor which manifests itself in "camp" images,...

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Penelope Gilliatt

In these days, Russell bangs our noses against the conventional cinematic notion of genius as if it were a manic affliction that landed on someone because his wife was being ill-tempered and his mistress humbly believed in him. Russell has given us big-scale biographies of Tchaikovsky and Liszt, and now he fells us with his "Mahler." (p. 119)

Mahler's character doesn't seem to have been particularly melodramatic, but Russell's film asserts that it was…. The mind of the picture is dulled and Nietzschean. There is a long scene equating Wagner and Nazism through Cosima Wagner, and including a characteristically banal sequence in which Mahler abjures Judaism by eating pig's-head and drinking milk at...

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Anwer Bati

Good news. Valentino … is Ken Russell's best film in years….

I must say that I find it amazing that critics still treat Russell's "biographical" films as if they were supposed to be definitive, carefully researched screen representations of the lives of his subjects. Don't they realise that it is not simply beyond Russell to make films like that—it just isn't what he sets out to do….

What Russell offers us in his films is a series of vivid cinematic dreams about his subjects. Known events are taken to bizarre conclusions and bizarre events are made even more nightmarish. In the case of Valentino the images are, on the whole, fairly restrained and Russell...

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Gene D. Phillips

To say that Rudolph Valentino best embodies Russell's idea of a hero is not to imply that Valentino was genuinely heroic in every aspect of his life and character, but that the real-life Valentino provided Russell with the raw material out of which he could fashion a cinematic hero that approximated his concept of greatness without distorting the latter's life and character in the bargain….

It may seem somewhat incongruous to compare a superstar of the primitive silent screen to composers and practitioners of other art forms which are all more exalted and sophisticated than silent movies ever were. But Russell's point seems to be that a man achieves greatness by living up to his personal code of...

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