Where to begin with Ken Russell

British cinema at full-bore: a beginner’s path through the work of one of our most flamboyant and creative directors: Ken Russell.

The Devils (1971)

Why this might not seem so easy

Although a comparatively late starter when it came to film (he’d trained as a dancer and worked as a successful photographer before turning to amateur filmmaking on the cusp of his thirties), Ken Russell more than made up for lost time, and his massive, sprawling 50-year film and television output offers a daunting challenge to newcomers trying to hack a coherent path through such a florid thicket.  

If there’s one thing that unites practically his entire oeuvre, it’s a decidedly un-British flamboyance, a fearless willingness to thrust often real-life subjects into a wildly fantastical mélange of illusion and invention. Critics and audiences alike alternated between being spellbound and appalled (“That he is extraordinarily talented is not generally in question,” the late Derek Malcolm wrote in 1985, “It’s what he does with his talent that gets, in Britain at least, the bad notices”), and part of Russell’s constant creative struggle involved this most quintessentially English filmmaker trying to forge a career primarily in a country that preferred its costume dramas and artist biopics to be far more buttoned-up and self-consciously literary. Even Russell’s most overtly serious films contain moments of sublime silliness, another ingredient that many have had difficulty processing.

But actors adored him, because he let them go right over the top, secure in the certainty that what might seem absurdly histrionic in the work of practically any other director would be a tailor-made fit for Russell’s approach. He’d also talent-spot people such as Derek Jarman, who was impulsively hired to work on The Devils (1971) and Savage Messiah (1972) despite no previous feature-film design experience. Like Jarman, Russell would regularly concoct visual miracles out of the most limited resources; it’s worth recalling that big-budget films like The Music Lovers (1971) and Tommy (1975) are a comparative rarity across his output as a whole.

The best place to start – The Devils

Based on a true historical account of the alleged possession of nuns at a convent in the French city of Loudun in the early 17th century, The Devils may be the ultimate Ken Russell film, showcasing all his regular preoccupations: Catholicism, the expression and repression of sexual urges, and the stormy relationship between an independent free-thinker and those in authority. The free-thinker is usually an artist, but here he’s the priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), newly appointed governor of Loudun and thorn in the side of Cardinal Richelieu, who has his own political designs on the city.  

The Devils (1971)

His calling notwithstanding, Grandier is no saint, but despite his womanising reputation he rejects the advances of the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), abbess at Loudun’s Ursuline convent. Yet her openly sexual obsession with him spreads to the rest of the nuns, presenting the authorities with something they simply cannot handle: the overwhelming power of female sexuality en masse, all the more blasphemous for having erupted in a convent. 

Grandier’s battles were paralleled by Russell’s own travails with both the BBFC and Warner Bros, each insisting on cuts. While other 1971 films maudits (A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs) have since been rehabilitated, The Devils remains in frustrating limbo, with Russell’s 2003 partial restoration never commercially released. The longest easily available version is the censored UK theatrical cut on the BFI DVD (although that’s preferable by far to the mangled US version, extensively recut without Russell’s input). But at least Russell was spared Grandier’s fiery fate.

What to watch next

Women in Love (1969) was Russell’s international breakthrough and remains one of the most empathetic of all screen adaptations of the work of D.H. Lawrence, to whom Russell would return with The Rainbow (1989) and the TV series Lady Chatterley (1993). Its fully nude wrestling match between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed was a major cultural milestone.

Women in Love (1969)

Other standouts include the unexpectedly charming musical The Boy Friend (1971), which Russell made immediately after The Devils “to prove to people I’m not totally deranged”; a prodigiously inventive adaptation of The Who’s rock opera Tommy (1975), which introduced much of the language of the modern music promo; Altered States (1980), in which William Hurt’s visionary scientist’s experiments with isolation chambers and hallucinogenic drugs saw Russell in his element; and Crimes of Passion (1984), which pitted Kathleen Turner’s respectable professional-turned-moonlighting sex worker against Anthony Perkins’ hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. When the BBFC snipped one scene slightly, Russell cheekily wrote to its then director James Ferman to thank him for inadvertently making it ruder.

But the genre that Russell made his own was the biopic, through which he offered hugely unconventional treatments of the outer and inner lives of composers Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers, 1971, famously pitched to a sceptical United Artists as “the story of a homosexual who marries a nymphomaniac”), Gustav Mahler (Mahler, 1974) and Franz Liszt (Lisztomania, 1975), sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (Savage Messiah, 1972) and silent star Rudolph Valentino (Valentino, 1977). In this vein, there’s also Gothic (1986), in which the night in which Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne), Percy Shelley (Julian Sands), Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson) and John Polidori (Timothy Spall) told each other ghost stories (which would ultimately lead to the writing of Frankenstein and the Dracula ancestor The Vampyre) could hardly be more in tune with Russell’s sensibility.

Mahler (1974)

As for Russell’s vast body of work for television, even his detractors make an exception for Elgar (1962) and Song of Summer (1968), with the latter an intensely moving portrait of the last years of the blind composer Frederick Delius, also cited by Russell himself as a personal favourite. And there’s little else in his output that matches The Debussy Film (1965) for multifaceted ambition or the Richard Strauss demolition job Dance of the Seven Veils (1970) for gleeful provocation. The latter was banned for decades when the Strauss estate refused to sanction further screenings until their copyright expired on New Year’s Day 2020, and they made it clear that Russell was neither forgotten nor forgiven when they refused permission for quotations from Strauss’s opera Salome in the 1988 film Salome’s Last Dance.

A much happier collaboration was with Melvyn Bragg, who wrote The Debussy Film and The Music Lovers and later commissioned numerous Russell-directed South Bank Shows, including the epic Ken Russell’s ABC of British Music (1988).

Where not to start

The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

Both Lisztomania (1975) and The Lair of the White Worm (1988) offer rewards galore for existing fans – the former imagines the life of Franz Liszt as if he were a 1970s rock god (he’s played by Roger Daltrey, fresh off Tommy), while the latter adapts an unintentionally funny potboiler by Bram Stoker into an intentionally funny campfest presided over by Amanda Donohoe’s slinky snake-woman. However, if they’re your first Russell films and you’re not in precisely the right frame of mind, you may legitimately wonder how anyone could ever have taken this director seriously, what with 19th-century groupies coaxing a 10-foot erection out of Liszt (which then does double duty as a beribboned maypole before it’s inserted into a guillotine; what would Freud have made of this?), or Peter Capaldi complete with kilt and bagpipes playing Pied Piper to a mongoose, glorious though these and many similar set-pieces are to the already initiated.  

Similar observations can be made about Russell’s final feature, 2002’s micro-budget The Fall of the Louse of Usher. You’d also be best off not starting with either the first (French Dressing, 1964) or the last (Whore, 1991) of the theatrical features, but for the opposite reason: by Russell standards they’re almost conventional.

Gothic is out on BFI Blu-ray on 18 September 2023.

Find Ken Russell films on BFI Player.

BFI Player logo

Stream landmark cinema

Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Try for free