Following a series of strokes, British film director Ken Russell died on Sunday at the age of 84. Russell was famed for being experimental and flamboyant with his films which had heavily sexual overtones and often rebelled against the otherwise rigid and subdued tone used by other famed British filmmakers. It earned him the nickname ‘The Fellini of the North’.
Russell first came to notice with 1967’s “Billion Dollar Brain”, the third film in the Michael Caine-led Harry Palmer spy drama series based on Len Deighton’s books. Two years later he directed his signature film – an adaptation of DH Lawrence’s “Women In Love”.
‘Women’ scored numerous Oscar nominations and featured the now infamous nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates that broke the taboo of full frontal male nudity on camera in a mainstream film.
That lead to numerous films in the 1970’s that have since become infamous. 1971’s historical drama “The Devils” has still never received a release in its original and uncut form due to its mixing of graphic sexuality and violence with religious themes and imagery. The original version featured a 2.5 minute scene of “crazed naked nuns sexually assaulting a statue of Christ” and another with Vanessa Redgrave’s character masturbating with a charred tibia.
He followed that up with the Twiggy-led period musical “The Boy Friend”, and his film version of The Who’s rock opera “Tommy” with an all-star cast that played to full cinema houses for over a year. He also did imaginative and rather loosely adapted biopics of famous artists including composer Tchaikovsky in “The Music Lovers”, composer Frederick Delius in “Song of Summer”, sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska in “Savage Messiah”, composer Gustav Mahler in “Mahler”, composer Richard Strauss in “Dance of the Seven Veils”, and actor Rudolph Valentino in “Valentino”.
In 1980 he made his only venture into sci-fi with the often hallucinatory William Hurt-led “Altered States” which scored strong reviews and decent box-office success. His next few films however didn’t take off with “Crimes of Passion” being considered a flop. He followed that with the two horror tales – “Gothic” which was about Mary Shelley’s conception of her novel “Frankenstein”, and an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “The Lair of the White Worm”.
He also did another D.H. Lawrence adaptation, the English period coming of age drama “The Rainbow” in 1989, followed by his last big screen feature directing effort with 1991’s “Whore”. After that he stuck to mostly TV movies and mini-series like “Lady Chatterley”, “Prisoner of Honor” and “Dogboys”. Russell also acted on screen, most notably in 1990’s “The Russia House” as an ambiguously gay British intelligence officer.
Russell has left behind an indelible impact on British cinema, and he will be long remembered as a man unapologetic about his style of filmmaking and belief that there is “no virtue in understatement”.