Aria 1987 ***

ariaCritics both loved and hated Don Boyd’s portmanteau film which pitches ten major directors (Robert Altman, Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg, Jean Luc-Godard) against ten classic operas and invites them to use their imagination. What that means, when the directors chosen are mainly white, male and slightly past their best, is a whole lot of undraped female breasts and bums; this didn’t raise much comment at the time, but looking back on Aria, it doesn’t reflect well on the kind of product created via the male domination of directing as recently as the 1980’s.

With a different talent taking up the baton every ten minutes, Aria isn’t a dull film to watch, and there’s some striking moments. Charles Sturridge offers a short MTV-style segment which matches Verdi to a massive close-up of newsreader Alistair Burnett, then fragments to show London kids stealing a car and watching a news-report about themselves. Altman riffs on Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade with an opera being premiered for the inmates of a mental asylum circa 1734; Julie Hagerty from Airplane appears here. Roeg throws himself into the assassination of King Zog of Albania circa 1931, with the king played in a gender-bending casting coup by his wife Theresa Russell. And Bill Bryden’s framing story has John Hurt miming to an ancient recording in full clown costume.

But this is an early film from the Miramax brand, and most of the directors interpret opera on annoyingly limited terms. Jean-Luc Godard imagines naked women in a gym, Bruce Beresford hears Wagner and imagines a naked Elizabeth Hurley, Franc Roddam’s take on the same composer involves Bridget Fonda stripping in a Las Vegas hotel room for her lover before their slash their wrists, Ken Russell imagined the naked body of a woman mutilated in a car crash but festooned with gems. What these visions have in common is an objectification of women, and that’s what makes Aria feel more than a little distasteful in 2020.

There is a gem here, and it comes from Julien Temple. Buck Henry, avuncular writer of The Graduate, appears as a frustrated husband who takes a hit of ecstasy to clear his mind to cheat on his wife (Beverly D’Angelo from the National Lampoon’s Vacation films). What he doesn’t imagine is that she has a lover too, and it’s only when their sex-tapes get mixed up after a tryst that he realises the error of his ways. (Henry is seen negotiating with “Woody’ over the phone about directing a segment of the film, but Allen declined to take part in Boyd’s project, as did Orson Welles and Fellini for different reasons.) It’s a funny little bit of storytelling, but notable because it subverts the notion of men being in control of women, and reveals male fantasy as pitiful, empty machismo.

Aria is a sporadically interesting project, but what it shows clearly in 2020 is that diversity is something that cannot be ignored. If all films are directed by elderly white men, then self-indulgence and juvenilia result. It’s understandable that many complaints are made about shoe-horning diversity into projects, but the supposedly inclusive and global vision of Aria feels like being locked in a cell with a collection of dog-eared soft-core VHS tapes. One good thing about the MeToo era will be that films like this will, surely, not longer be made.

Salome’s Last Dance 1988 ***


As well as a peerless acting career, Glenda Jackson has had a second act as a politician, serving as a Labour MP in the UK parliament before retiring to act again in 2015. As she takes to the stage in a 1882 brothel in Ken Russell’s film, surrounded by topless models and portly men in leather thongs, it’s easy to see how her political and theatrical goals might look similar; anyone wondering what other strings British MP’s have to their bows should pay close attention. Decadence, as it often is with Russell, is the subject; Oscar Wilde (Nickolas Grace) retreats to a bordello to watch various creatures of low morals perform his banned play Salome, which is reproduced here in full, translated by Russell’s wife Vivian. Stratford Johns, beloved tv detective turned unlikely muse for late-period Russell, makes an arrogant Herod, and Imogen Millias-Scott plays Salome in a off-kilter way; her striptease is given a non-binary twist by Russell using a man as her body double to sting any potential voyeurs. Salome’s Last Dance is a hard film to sit through, consisting largely of monologues which have gained a certain mustiness over time. But the costume and staging are as imaginative as might be expected; Russell was a creative force, and it would be nice if the fan-boys who scramble over his most salacious work (The Devils, Tommy) showed some interest in this difficult, but surprisingly melancholy and mature take on the methodical literary madness of Oscar Wilde.

The Lair of the White Worm 1988 ***

The decline and fall of Ken Russell would make a film in itself; once the enfant terrible of British cinema, he ended up making films in his nursing home. The Lair of the White Worm is a very strange late entry from the end of his peak; the 80’s saw him venture across the pond of the excellent Altered States and the oddball Crimes of Passion; returning to Blighty saw him head back to the literary path with Frankenstein creation story Gothic and this adaptation of Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm. Both film have enough baroque imagery to qualify as horror films, although the sight of Peter Capaldi pacifying the giant worm with his bagpipes is likely to create sleepless nights with mirth. Capaldi’s Angus Flint is one of a ground of excavators who come across a giant skull on an archaeological dig; could the mysterious Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), who seduces boy scouts in her spare time, know anything about the giant worm it suggests? And does Lord James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant) realise that his family have a history of slaying giant beasts? Russell’s use of chroma-key effects to create weird hallucinogenic montages of Bacchanalian tableau is hit or miss, but the cast all seem game for a ludicrous adventure that’s part Dr Who, part Nigel Kneale, and mainly Ken Russell, having fun with the production design by finding worms, snakes and all kinds of visual motifs for his story. The Lair of the White Worm was less than popular on release, but it’s gained a deserved cult following; the star names involved should draw a crowd to streaming services, and even if they don’t want to remember this film, it’s use of classic British mythology gives it a unique, decadent tone.

Mahler 1974 ***

MahlerKen Russell’s name remains a byword for excess, and few who see The Devils, Tommy or Crimes of Passion are likely to argue. But his desire to shock audiences was only part of his repertoire, and the skills he developed as a film-maker for the BBC’s Omnibus documentary series are exemplified by this untypically retrained biopic of composer Gustav Mahler. Played in stern fashion by Robert Powell, Mahler’s life is explored in flashback structure, with emphasis on religion and family. There’s also a strong pictorial sense of landscape; Russell often complained about the lack of countryside in British films, with the Lake District making a picturesque background. Sure, there’s an Oliver Reed cameo and an anachronistic dream sequence featuring Nazis, but Russell keeps the bit between his teeth and delivers an austere, dignified picture of musical genius that, shorn of any of the sensationalism Russell was regularly criticised for, almost no-one saw in 1975.

Gothic 1986 ***


The ash-clouded summer that Mary Shelley spent at Lake Geneva has been the subject of several films; Ken Russell’s 1986 phantasmagoria is probably the least authentic, but arguably the most imaginative. The late Natasha Richardson is Mary to Julian Sands’ Shelley, with Gabriel Bryne as a cane-toting Lord Byron and Timothy Spall dealing out the laudanum as the wayward Dr Polidori. Russell clearly enjoys having some potent hallucinatory imagery to get his teeth into, and Gothic features demonic imps and nipples that morph into eyes amongst the smorgasbord of strangeness. Russell doesn’t shy away from the sexual aspect either; it’s a wonder any literature was produced at all by these eccentric, hedonistic characters. Dexter Fletcher also features.

Billion Dollar Brain 1967 ***


A third outing for Michael Caine’s supermarket-shopping spy Harry Palmer, Ken Russell’s 1967 thriller takes him away from the kitchen sink dramas of The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin and moves the action to a Bond-level extravagance. John McGrath adapts from Len Deighton’s book, and Russell brings his customary imagination to what is, for him, a fairly conventional narrative. Billion Dollar Brain’s notions of ‘super-computers’ are deliciously retro, and seeing Harry Palmer well out of his depth has a certain charm, as do the muscular images of General Midwinter (Ed Begley) commanding his army of trucks as they drive across the ice-floes in a neat reference to Eisenstein.

Altered States 1981 ****


The absorbing questioning of television, media and business ethics in Paddy Chayefsky’s acerbic Network provide little hint of the mind-blowing antics of his follow up, Altered States, directed in his US debut by Ken Russell. William Hurt stars as the scientist using a sensory depravation tank and some prime peyote to experiment in regression. That he unleashes a monster is no surprise, but Russell’s film is much more cerebral that the lurid visuals suggest, zooming in with relish on a hallucination of a nine-eyed goat. There’s down to earth support from Charles Haid (Renko in Hill Street Blues) and the always entertaining presence of Bob Balaban, but Hurt fills out his lead character with convincing zeal and doubt, anchoring the film’s serious intent. Any films that sets up the question of discovering a final truth, and then answering it, risks derision, but Altered States stimulates both the mind and the intellect, although not always at the same time.

The Devils 1971 ****


Ken Russell’s notorious film was cut, denounced and ridiculed on release, but has gained considerably in reputation despite being seen in butchered cuts. In hindsight, and without listing the catalogue of scenes deemed offensive at the time, it’s a serious minded adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon and John Whiting’s play The Devils with Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave on top form as the priest and the nun set against each other by an inquisition into the behaviour of nuns in 17th century nuns. Seen with the missing Rape of Christ sequence restored, and you may have to cobble this edit together yourself, it’s a moving depiction of the corrupt nature of power, one that the film applies rigorously to Catholicism, but which has a wider and more potent meaning if audiences can see beyond the sensationalism. The Derek Jarman sets in themselves are extraordinary.