Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS

Tuesday, March 20, 2012 1:34:52 AM

Ken Russell, british film, The Devils, film art, DVD, britain

I went tonight to see the little seen director’s cut of Ken Russell’s 1971 masterpiece THE DEVILS. Based (fairly loosely) on Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon, itself a novelisation of an actual historical event. The story is broadly true and depicts very clearly and honestly the way that religion and politics come together in a toxic relationship when power is on the line. As such, very timely.

The film is magnificent, helped by the British Film Institutes’s superb screen. Derek Jarman’s sets together with Russell’s clear-headed and moving script, encourage the excellent cast to deliver some of the best performances of their careers. Vanessa Redgrave’s performance as the obsessed nun Sister Jeanne is absolutely jaw dropping in its intensity and one comes out convinced that it no performance, but real. I’ve always admired Redgrave but this something special. A performance of sheet guts and brutal will, framed by the actor’s ethereal beauty.

An unexpected and welcome Q and A with some of the (surviving) cast ended the night. I was very happy to hear Dudley Sutton and Murray Melvin in particular sharing their highly-charged and idiosyncratic anecdotes of their time working with Russell. Both are fabulous character actors, the sort of people that have made British theater, cinema and television what it is. It was a pleasure to see them.

The Devils did bring me around to thinking about films that portray religion, especially the Catholic Church. As someone brought up in the Church I think sometimes that it’s a really easy target. All that mysterious pageantry, the strange symbolism, the theatricality – all of it borrowed direct from the temple of the High Priest of Amun-Ra by the way, nothing to do with the Torah – it makes for great cinema. But because it makes such great cinema it can make the church look so much worse than other institutions that do similar things but not quite so glamorously. However, Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General did a good job of the Protestant witch trials in England, and Arthur Miller’s Crucible is an interesting take on similar real-life material (although that really is allegorical as Miller was actually interested in the McCarthy trails and didn’t really understand the Salem situation, he should have read Cotton Mather more thoroughly). All of these films capture very well the relationship between organised religion and power, and how credulity and repression are engineered by the systems in power, to support that system.

But I have to admit that as a Catholic, however lapsed, I do find films about the Devil and witchcraft and the Church and all that, really appealing. Probably much more than if I hadn’t been raised in the church. The frisson of forbidden excitement is really there.

“The Devils” DVD is out now, the X-certificate version that is not quite the director’s cut but I guess is as good as we’ll get – and I do recommend it wholeheartedly. But I am so glad I jumped quickly and booked those BFI seats and got to see it on the big screen.

©G. McIver 2012 all rights reserved

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