Visionary Director Dead At 84

Flamboyant, outrageous, innovative, iconoclastic; Ken Russell was all of these and then some. The veteran British director passed away peacefully on Sunday at the age of 84 after a long period of illness; a pleasing if ironic end to the life of one of cinema's great mavericks and creators of drama. An outlandish boundary pusher, his cinematic obsessions with sex, death and religion, i.e. the big themes, often saw him maligned and misunderstood. But he made an enormous impact on the film industry, not only in addressing cultural taboo's but through his remarkable visual style of deep saturated colour, extreme close ups and symbolic imagery.

Initially a documentary photographer, he began working for the BBC in the 1960's, specifically for the rigorous arts programme Omnibus, where he tackled his first films depicting the work of composers, most notably in 'Debussy' and 'Bartok'. The works of musicians, and to a lesser extent visual artists, was a subject he was to return to again and again. Russell was hugely prolific throughout the 1970's, for both his films for television and his later features; they will be remembered as his golden era.

The robust and racy Oscar nominated adaptation of DH Lawrence's 'Women In Love', is perhaps his best known film, if only for the infamous homoerotic nude wrestling scene between it's leads, Oliver Reed and Alan Bates. It set a precedent for the director, a bohemian who had become politicised during the 60's. His raison d'etre was to act as provocateur, which he achieved with startling success, courting controversy at every turn, resolutely refusing to sanitise his work for anyone.

His admiration for musicians and visual artists continued throughout this period in which he directed numerous biopics. He tackled Tchaikovsky in 'The Music Lovers', the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska in 'Savage Messiah' and the great Romantic composer 'Mahler' in one of his more sedate works. But lest the audience get comfortable, this was followed by the camp, lurid and downright bizarre 'Litzomania', starring Who frontman Roger Daltrey, who in the same year was to star in Russell's thrillingly overblown big screen treatment of the rock opera 'Tommy'.

However, his most controversial film was unquestionably the 1971 masterpiece 'The Devils' starring Vanessa Redgrave and favoured collaborator, Oliver Reed. Violent, sexual, provocative and blasphemous, for some it verged on madness, yet it's a notable favourite of film critic Mark Kermode amongst others. It will finally be re-released in its entirety in March 2012, forming part of the BFI's centenary celebrations. A fitting posthumous tribute to his unique talents.

Unwilling to dilute his singular vision, he became increasingly wilful and difficult to work with, falling somewhat out of favour in later life. He continued to work in the medium of film but increasingly funded his own projects in addiction to acting as visiting professor at several film schools, authoring several books on composers and even as a short lived contestant on Big Brother 5. An uncompromising, singular, visionary film maker of the kind rarely found any more, Ken Russell was an unstoppable force, a great British eccentric and a remarkable artist.


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