The British film industry is this week mourning the passing of Ken Russell, the beloved enfant terrible of our national cinema. A documentarian who turned to feature filmmaking, Russell cut his teeth in the Free Cinema movement of the 1950s before moving to the BBC, where he directed a series of films on classical composers and had his first brush with controversy when he portrayed Richard Strauss as a Nazi (the film, ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, is still banned thanks to the Strauss family withdrawing the rights to the music). Russell’s first big-screen masterpiece, 1969’s DH Lawrence adaptation ‘Women in Love’, broke ground with its depiction of sexuality and male bonding – its nude wrestling scene remains a homoerotic milestone. The film nonetheless garnered Russell his first and only Oscar nomination for Best Director.
Russell spent the 1970s as the most provocative filmmaker in Britain: his furious anti-religious masterwork ‘The Devils’ (1971) remains arguably the most explicit and troubling film ever made in this country and was savagely cut by the censors (though a director-approved version is due for re-release in 2012). His adaptation of The Who’s manic rock opera ‘Tommy’ (1975) was another psychedelic explosion, while the absurdly ambitious follow-up ‘Lisztomania’ (1975) featured castration by guillotine, robot Nazis and Ringo Starr as the Pope.
Russell’s star waned during the 1980s: Hollywood production ‘Altered States’ (1980) was a flawed but fascinating drug-fuelled visual spectacular, but his return to the UK brought disappointments like ‘Gothic’ (1986) and ‘Lair of the White Worm’ (1988). By the 1990s, Russell was a celebrity as much as a filmmaker, particularly following the tabloid reaction to ‘Whore’ (1991). In 2007, he fled ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ after an argument with Jade Goody and returned to directing, both in film, with short video works like ‘A Kitten for Hitler’ (2007), and on stage, with his 2008 off-Broadway production of ‘Mindgame’ with Keith Carradine.
Russell died in his sleep on Sunday November 27, at the age of 84. Tom Huddleston