'Dante's Inferno by Ken Russell' by Martin Heavisides

Ken Russell has a very good and a very bad reputation as a filmmaker, both of which are well-merited, so while I reacted to the suggestion I write something on Dante’s Inferno, his biographical film on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with almost as much pleasure as I would to an opportunity to see it again, I did have to wonder how accurate my very fond memories were of a film I saw just once, in '78? '79? I had no hope of seeing it again in advance of writing. Luckily YouTube's arisen as a resource. The clips I was able to look at there have very much the qualities--broad sweep, deep perception, giddy but well-controlled shifts of style-- that I remember being so impressed with at the time. Other information was filled in by Wikipedia and a remarkable review on the Movie Projector website.#

The contribution of the screenwriter is typically neglected in a film of this kind, but Austin Frazer's in this case must have been considerable, and not only in the dialogue and narrative voice-over--anyone who's ever written a script knows that visual evocation figures about equally. The decision to focus primarily on Rossetti (Russell had planned a three-cornered study focussing equally on Millais and Holman Hunt) was prompted by Frazer's script, and I suspect its structure allowed Russell a freedom to range anarchically without losing the tread of the intricate story he was telling. Probably Russell was responsible for the anachronistic elements--much of the soundtrack is early 20th century pop tunes played on instruments and with orchestration that would have been available in the nineteenth century ("I Want to Be Happy" plays over the final credits in an instrumental version with the pops and scratches you'd expect from a slightly worn phonograph disc), a plastic broom is seen on the landing of the staircase in Rossetti's house in the scene where his wife, Elizabeth Siddall, chases out another woman Rossetti's brought to their bed. I do wonder whose idea it was, Frazer's or Russell's, to play the scene in a single fixed shot looking up the double stairwell, so that the confrontation in the bedroom is overheard at a distance, some kind of fight, words exchanged, until the other woman erupts on the staircase, fleeing Lizzie in violent pursuit closebehind (a marvelous example of how a scene can be an imated by freeing it in space and limiting your view of its action).

Somebody more familiar with Rossetti than I am would be needed for a minute examination of how close Russell/Frazer come to the facts of his life. So far as I can tell the broad strokes are accurate and thepsychological minu tiae add up to a portrait that rings true. (One point worth mentioning; a good deal of Rossetti's poetry is recited in voice-over--remarkable in itself that this never seems stilted or affected--and when Rossetti speaks it's recognizably in the same voice. This is by no means usually true in biopics; whenever the script for Attenborough's Chaplin draws directly on Charlie's writing or words in the public record, hesounds like Chaplin; in re constructed or invented scenes, not in the least.

A great deal of the action has a multilayered symbolic intensity ('eyes that last I met in dreams') that can't sensibly be read as literally true. It's doubtful the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood ever made a midnight bonfire of the works of Gainsborough and Reynolds or their epigones in the British Royal Academy ofArt, but it's a lovely instant snapshot of the hostility their rising movement felt (justly, I'd say) to an artistic establishment fixated on nature morte, with no place for an artist as vivid and multidimensional as their beloved William Blake.

Oliver Reed's portrayal ofRossetti is flamboyant but meticulous and above all (particularly as it shows the gradual changes wrought by aging) subtle: which is something of a surprise; I'm not sure anyone but Russell ever
drew a subtle performance out ofOliver Reed. (Not always Russell's long suit either--maybe they brought out the best in each other.)

The film fuses an intimate sympathy with a stringent criticism of its lead figure. Considered in terms of cinematic style, the sympathy is conveyed principally by its Romantic flourishes (though the spillover into Gothic arries asardonic sting), the criticism (which has its own undercurrent of sympathy) by the ironic, modernist flourishes(the narration as I recall it a shade or two more mordant than Godard's in Bande a part). The styles alternate at first, but as the pace picks up they tend to overlay each other: flawlessly as I far as I recall (you can appreciate the difficulty); perhaps that's the chief reason it feels (as most biopics do not) like a portrait in full.

http: //themovieprojector.blogspot.ca/2011 /10/ken-russell-at-bbc-part-3-dantes.html >Movie projector.


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