I REMEMBER at school, as secretary of some ludicrous sixth-form arts club, arranging
for a screening of Ken Russell's Women in Love for the benefit
of the English literature A-level candidates. D. H. Lawrence was not, thank God, on our syllabus; but the English master waived that consideration, supposing that our literary knowledge could usefully be broadened by the film. He may have been expecting a BBC-TV-like "classic serial", complete with lugubrious music and shaking sets; and while he never said
what he thought of Russell's sex scenes or the infamous nude wrestling match, it was the last such screening to occur.
Future A-level candidates may experiment with Russell's Gothic (Lumiere, '18'), arguing that a film exploring relations between Lord Byron, the Shelleys and Dr Polidori constituted valuable viewing. Even students of cinema history may be tempted: the film purports to investigate the origins of Frankenstein The Vampyre, both so crucial to Hollywood's development. What does the film have to tell them?
Undoubtedly, very little. Russell has compressed the events of 1816, when the Shelleys stayed with the exiled Byron, living in seclusion in the Villa Diodati with his biographer Dr Polidori, into the action of one stormy night. In so doing, he has resuscitated a familiar dramatic device: put a group of neurotic, intelligent, sexually exciteable individuals into a confined, inescapable environment and watch what happens. This experiment is usually performed on schoolboys or prisoners, but Russell is more interested in how Romantic poets would behave: Byron may once have written "though the night was made for loving/And the day returns too
soon"; but he certainly was not referring to the evening depicted in Gothic.
After exchanging barbed comments over dinner, Byron (Gabriel Byrne), insisting that the pursuit of fear is the most stimulating pastime, suggests a game of hide-and-seek. (Shelley once wrote "I sought for ghosts, and sped/Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin" and here Russell gives him the opportunity to re-enact that claim.) In a mounting frenzy of drink and laudanum the guests, exploring the mansion, discover the zebras and snakes of their host's menagerie and marionettes playing harpsichords.
A seance is conducted around a human skull exhumed at Newstead Abbey. Mary Shelley's half-sister Claire has a fit and passes out, the others are pursued by wild imaginings and the film culminates after a furious mixing of fact and fantasy with Mary (Natasha Richardson) foreseeing her husband's death in a boating accident .
Predictably, Russell has little concern for historical accuracy. His characters may mention that they have been weaned on horror, the Gothic fiction of Vathek and The Castle of
Otranto; they may express contemporary religious uncertainties about whether God
made Man or Man God, but they are really twentieth-century creatures, cyphers for Russell's obsession with the gulf between spiritual ambition and the fetid pantings of the flesh (just as his Coleridge, Mahler and Tchaikovsky were).
As usual with Russell's films Gothic bears its author's indelible stamp. Only he would have indulged in its symbolic setpieces as dramatisations of neuroses and premonitions. (Thus we have Mary, doomed to endure several miscarriages, obsessed with a bloody foetus; and Byron, doomed to die of excessive bleeding at Missolonghi, preoccupied with leeches.)
Only Russell would have permitted its soundtrack, alternately sentimental and thunderously cacophonous (which Keats himself may have had in mind: "heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter"). Only he would have indulged in the lurid, pyrotechnical special effects, designed specifically to shock.
The actors cope as best they can. Gabriel Byrne wisely accepts that subtle acting would be incongruous in a Russell film concerning a character known to posperity as mad, bad and dangerous to know. Lady Caroline Lamb might not agree, but I thought Byrne gave as creditable a performance as possible in the circumstances, with his club-foot, his (I think) false nose, his ominous, lecherous superintendance of Claire and, even more, of Shelley. Similarly, Natasha Richardson.
Julian Sands continues the tradition of undressing established in A Room With A View; here, ranting about the power of lightning, naked in the storm, researching, no doubt, for his Ode to the West Wind. When not stripping, Sands gushes in a shrill, tremulous way, like an over-excited schoolboy. No wonder Shelley was bullied at Eton.
If you hate Ken Russell, if you agree with his detractors that his films represent profuse strains of unpremeditated art, stay away. I rather admire his belief that the public needs to be shocked; and, that, as intellectual provocation is too subtle, his particular visual variety of outrage has some purpose. Relentlessly vulgar nonsense—I loved it. It is not Russell at his most assured, but many notorious poets still await his attention: Marlowe, Rochester, Wilde . . .