x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Tributes to the 'unique' and 'innovative' director Ken Russell

Known for his flamboyant visual style, Ken Russell, the maverick director of Women in Love, The Devils and The Who's rock opera Tommy, has died aged 84 following a series of strokes.

Ken Russell filming with the model Twiggy for The Boy Friend in 1971. AP Photo
Ken Russell filming with the model Twiggy for The Boy Friend in 1971. AP Photo

His voice was frail and he often lost his train of thought, but Ken Russell still enraptured the crowd at London's Barbican Centre earlier this year in what would become one of his last public appearances. It was a particular achievement, because few in the audience could actually see the filmmaker. A mix-up had meant Russell - whose declining health had left him wheelchair-bound - could not actually reach the stage. Instead, he regaled hundreds of people with stories about fighting studio bigwigs and teasing Vanessa Redgrave, while seated behind the audience, microphone in hand.

Known for his flamboyant visual style, the maverick director of Women in Love, The Devils and The Who's rock opera Tommy, died aged 84 on Sunday, following a series of strokes. His widow Elize said she was "devastated" by her husband's death, which had been "completely unexpected".

Known as the wild man of British cinema, he mixed satire with camp and surrealist touches to create films that were beautiful to some, vulgar to others and rarely free from controversy. Born in Southampton in 1927, his career spanned both television and cinema and proved that British film "didn't have to be about kitchen-sink realism", as the critic Mark Kermode put it. From BBC arts documentaries to features that won him acclaim from the top ranks of European and Hollywood film industries, Russell always refused to compromise his artistic vision.

This meant that although not every movie he made could be called great, each was thoroughly unique.

"He was so innovative. He was so daring. He had a unique style and ploughed a unique furrow. He was very jovial when you met him privately," said fellow British director Michael Winner. "He wasn't the sort of mad sadist which you might think from seeing some of the movies. He obviously had this duplicity of mind. So he pushed the barriers completely, got away with it sometimes and didn't get away with it at other times."

The son of a violent-tempered shoe shop owner, the young Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell and his mother would escape the family home and seek refuge in the cinema. After spending time in both the Royal Air Force and merchant navy, he became a photographer and then in 1959, a documentary filmmaker at the BBC. Rising to prominence with the drama-documentary Elgar (about the life of the British composer) in 1962, the two decades that followed would be his most prolific and highly acclaimed.

After gaining international attention with the Michael Caine-starring spy movie Billion Dollar Brain came Russell's signature film, 1969's Women in Love. Set in the 1920s, the exuberant DH Lawrence adaptation featured a notorious nude wrestling scene between the male stars Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, while the female lead Glenda Jackson won an Academy Award for her performance.

Soon after came his most controversial work, 1971's The Devils. Set in 17th-century France - a country under the grip of the power-hungry clergyman Cardinal Richelieu - it also starred Reed, this time as a priest accused of witchcraft and Redgrave as a disturbed, hunchbacked nun. Due to its disturbing content, the historical drama was banned in several countries, heavily edited in others and unavailable in its uncut version on home release anywhere. Almost a decade ago however, the critic and Russell-devotee Mark Kermode led the effort to restore the film. A version close to the length of the original was screening at festivals, but its widely anticipated DVD release never materialised - Russell himself believed this was because its owner, Warner Bros, was still concerned about The Devils' controversial content, some 40 years after it was made. Earlier this month, however, the British Film Institute announced that 2012 would finally see the DVD and Blu-ray release of the restored print.

His biggest commercial success was 1975's Tommy, a rollicking adaptation of the stage play based on The Who's album of the same name.

It featured appearances from Tina Turner, Elton John and Jack Nicholson, as well as the members of the rock group - with the singer Roger Daltrey playing the lead role. Russell was so fond of the singer that he reteamed with him later that year for Lisztomania, about the composer Franz Liszt. With a lifelong passion for classical music, Delius, Debussy, Elgar, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Mahler and Liszt all became the subjects of Russell films. In the 1980s, the director applied his bombastic visual style to the Hollywood sci-fifilm Altered States (which featured the screen debuts of William Hurt and Drew Barrymore) and the barmy Bram Stoker adaptation The Lair of the White Worm, featuring a young Hugh Grant.

Although regularly honoured with fellowships and retrospectives of his movies, recent decades saw Russell offer little of comparable value to his 1960s and 1970s work. He did cause controversy again in 2007, though, this time with an unlikely appearance on the celebrity edition of the UK reality TV show Big Brother. His stint in the house was cut short, however, when Russell walked away from the programme after an altercation with his housemate Jade Goody.

Russell's wife said the director had been busy scripting and casting a planned musical feature film of Alice In Wonderland in the weeks leading up to his death, as well as completing an article for The Times about the forthcoming release of The Devils. "He was keeping himself very busy," she added.

artslife@thenational.ae