My first awareness of stepping into the visually spectacular world of Ken Russell was through his 1975 Rock Opera, Tommy, which projected the mind of British Rock outfit The Who’s Pete Townshend.
It was however his 1970 feature Women In Love alongside his 1971 triple whammy of films that would cement his place in celluloid history and destroy the notion that British films were always bound in kitchen sink dramas. Whilst both The Music Lovers and The Boy Friend equal praise, it was the third production that year that deserves your attention and is the subject of scrutiny for this retrospective.
The Devils was and still is a bold historical recount of a 17th Century priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), in a tale that is embedded with political, sexual, and religious commentary through power and persecution.
It has morphed through various storytelling platforms leading up to Russell’s vision from Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon before John Whiting adapted it for the stage. It is through this feature that the sheer flamboyance catapulted the precarious balance of church and state with a political attack that would cut to its core. This very action not only makes The Devils a unique feature, but also kicks the censors’ nest into outrage and stupefaction to the point of immediate rejection. Most notably, was a scene now dubbed ‘The Rape of Christ’ which saw naked and fornciation nuns, frolicking with a statue of Christ, thus deemed too far for reviewers eyes and subjected to the cutting room floor. It was only through the perservertence of modern British film critic Mark Kermode’s lone campaign to search for the lost scene that it was inevitably uncovered and re-edited back into the feature that Russell’s true intention would be fully realised.
On a personal note, there are a number of crucial things at play here that make The Devils one of the best and most misunderstood features to grace the screen. We’ve mentioned Russell’s stylised vision, which is a stunning sight to behold, and this is supported by the stark depiction through Derek Jarman’s set design synthesising the white tiles of the city with the black courtiers costumes. Strengthening the feature is the performances on show with the afore-mentioned Reed in arguably one his finest performances captured on screen. Russell himself would describe his muse, stating that the ‘camera was his slave’. And that’s not to mention Vanessa Redgrave who would subject her body through a haunting depiction of the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne, riddled with sclerosis and subjected to a life of sexual repression, embittered by the larger than life Grandier’s lavish attention that he bestows upon himself. Both characters are psychologically complex and ebb and flow through various modes as the hysteria heightens to a shockingly brutal conclusion.
The Devils is a film that could so easily be judged at face value, but if you dare to delve deep beneath the charade on show, Ken Russell a metaphorically dense narrative that casts similarities between past and present, through hard-hitting and controversial subject matter on the perversions of Catholicism and the effects that brainwashing and repression can have on the most steadfast and loyal citizens. It’s a glorious movie that stuck with me on my initial journey through the celluloid world and its portrayal is the reason that it stays with me today.
In Russell’s own words, it is ‘a film of imagination’, and for those with a wild and riveting imagination, it more than meets the mind, but subjects you to a wildly entertaining ride that warrants your attention.
- Saul Muerte