The Ken and Ollie show


© Russo Productions / Warner Bros.


Twenty years ago this month, Oliver Reed – possibly the most rambunctious and unpredictable actor in British film history, and surely the thirstiest – breathed his last.


He’d been in Malta filming Gladiator (1999) for Ridley Scott and, incidentally, quietly stealing the show from Russell Crowe.  (“I wasn’t the best because I killed quickly…  I was the best because the crowd loved me.”)  One afternoon, he accompanied his wife to a Chinese restaurant in Valetta only to find that the restaurant was closed and they ended up instead in a nearby pub.  Here, the 61-year-old Reed proceeded to knock back rums at an industrial rate and engage sailors just off a Royal Navy warship in arm-wrestling bouts until, suddenly, his heart packed in.  So I thought I would mark May 2019, twentieth anniversary of the great man’s death, by writing about one of his classic films.  And there’s no more classic an Ollie Reed movie than 1971’s ultra-controversial The Devils, scripted and directed by his friend, and some would say partner-in-crime, Ken Russell.


By the way, the following comments are based on the version of The Devils I own, an 111-minute DVD from the British Film Institute with an introduction by Mark Kermode.  I’ve heard, though, that since 2004 there’s been a 117-minute version with restored footage on the go.  If you’ve never seen the movie, don’t read on – there will be spoilers galore.


Based on historical events in 17th century France, and on two works inspired by those events, Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudon (1952) and John Whiting’s play The Devils (1961), the film deals with skulduggery at national and local levels.  The power-hungry Cardinal Richelieu (played by Christopher Logue, who was best known as a poet) encourages Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) to create a centralised and authoritarian France, with the Catholic Church entrenched as keeper of the national faith.  This means taking action against certain French cities that have become laws onto themselves and function like city-states.


© Russo Productions / Warner Bros.


Particularly irksome to Richelieu is the city of Loudon, which has kept its autonomy thanks to its huge fortified city walls and which has a dismaying tendency to treat its Protestant citizens as equals to the Catholic ones.  Richelieu sends his agent, Baron Jean de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), with orders to demolish Loudon’s walls and bring the city to heel.  However, de Laubardemont is thwarted when confronted by Urbain Grandier (Reed), an eloquent and powerful city priest who’s able to bring the citizenry onto the streets to resist him and his soldiers.


Grandier’s political principles might be high-minded but his personal ones are anything but.  A philanderer and predator, he’s already impregnated and abandoned one woman (Georgina Hale) and is busy wooing another (Gemma Jones), whom he marries in a secret ceremony after claiming to have found theological justification that priests can become husbands.


Meanwhile, de Laubardemont joins forces with members of the local clergy, judiciary and trades whom Grandier has offended for personal or professional reasons and they conspire to destroy him.  Their means of doing so comes from an unexpected source – the scoliosis-stricken Sister Jeanne des Anges (Vanessa Redgrave), abbess of a Loudon convent.  Although she’s never met Grandier, Sister Jeanne has worshipped him from afar, first in a spiritual way and then – through a series of increasingly graphic and disturbing visions – in an ungodly, sensual one.  Eventually she becomes deranged, her hysteria infects the nuns under her governance, and she accuses Grandier of using witchcraft to possess and corrupt her and her convent.  De Laubardemont and his allies promptly summon the witch-hunting Father Barre (Michael Gothard) to investigate.  When they’ve gathered enough ‘evidence’, they have Grandier charged with witchcraft and put him on trial for his life.


© Russo Productions / Warner Bros.


With its brew of politics, sex, violence and religion, which in turn are depicted cynically, explicitly, unflinchingly and sacrilegiously, The Devils was and still is a provocative watch.  It had an ‘X’ certificate slapped on it in the USA, which meant few Americans got to see it – X-certificate movies were assumed to be pornographic ones and got few theatre-bookings.  In addition, both the studio, Warner Brothers, and the censors took scissors to its more inflammatory scenes.  And Britain’s establishment critics were aghast.  The prissy and grumpy Leslie Halliwell, whose Filmgoers’ Companion books were for many years the only film-reference books British people read, dismissed it as ‘outrageously sick’ and ‘in howling bad taste from beginning to end’, while the hostility shown by the Evening Standard’s Alexander Walker culminated in a bust-up in a TV studio where Russell smacked the critic over the head with a rolled-up copy of his own newspaper.


These days, predictably, all that condemnatory water has passed well under the bridge.  Younger critics and filmmakers recognise Russell as a flamboyant auteur who added welcome dashes of flair, colour, imagination and daringness to a British film industry that was long accustomed to making stodgy historical costume dramas and dreary kitchen-sink dramas and seemed unaware that cinema is supposed to be, you know, cinematic.  And The Devils is acknowledged as his masterpiece.  For instance, Ben Wheatley, director of Kill List (2011) and High Rise (2016), has said, “The Devils to me stands alone in Ken Russell’s work.  It has all the fierceness and craziness of his movies, but it also has a seriousness and an intensity that isn’t in his other movies.”


Anyway, what’s my assessment of The Devils?  Well, I’ll start with what I see as the movie’s weakness.  Although it’s intended to be over the top, it goes a bit too over the top during the lengthy sequences where Father Barre and his lackeys invade the convent searching for proof of Grandier’s demonic influence.  Barre has already, secretly, threatened the nuns with execution unless they agree to behave hysterically.  And on cue, those nuns put on a hell of a show – a chaotic fracas of nudity, licentiousness, writhing, screaming, eye-goggling, tongue-waggling, attempted copulation with candlesticks and some carry-on with a giant effigy of Christ on the cross that the Vatican probably wouldn’t approve of.  At this point, you feel you’re watching not so much a Ken Russell film as a parody of a Ken Russell film – which come to think of it, was what his later Lair of the White Worm (1988) was.


© Russo Productions / Warner Bros.


Otherwise, I think The Devils is magnificent.  Its highlights include the stylised sets by a young Derek Jarman, which eschew the grime, grubbiness and gloom you associate with life four centuries ago and instead are dazzlingly white and clean but also disturbingly clinical.  These include Sister’s Jeanne’s convent, whose warren of chambers and passageways have the look of some germ-free medical institution, and Richelieu’s headquarters, which resemble a cross between a giant bank-vault and a well-scrubbed prison and are disconcertingly staffed by priests and nuns.  The Devils’ policy of telling a historical story but not with historically accurate backdrops would appear in later British movies, most notably those made by Jarman himself when he became a director, such as Caravaggio (1986) and Edward II (1991).  And I suspect that an also-young Peter Greenaway was making notes because The Devils contains sequences reminiscent of his later films – for example, one where Russell’s camera closes in on the figure of de Laubardemont while he stands against a painting-like tableau.


The performances are another highlight.  The band of conspirators set on eliminating Grandier are played by a glorious rogue’s gallery of British character actors.  Dudley Sutton makes a credibly villainous de Laubardemont, his rottenness tempered with a soldierly practicality and matter-of-factness.  Northern Irish actor Max Adrian and British sitcom stalwart Brian Murphy – yes, that’s George from George and Mildred (1976-1980) – are fabulously contemptible as the pair of quack medical practitioners who fall out with Grandier when he catches them trying to treat a plague victim with glass globes containing bees placed over the buboes and also, bizarrely, with a stuffed crocodile.  “What fresh lunacy is this?” Grandier bellows at them, a line that became the title of Robert Sellars’ biography of Oliver Reed, published in 2013.


There are excellent turns too from the impish Georgina Hale, embittered but endearing as the woman Grandier has wronged, and John Woodvine – Doctor Hirsch in the 1981 classic An American Werewolf in London – as her magistrate father, whose enmity for Grandier helps seal his fate.  Meanwhile, decked out in hippy-esque hair and John Lennon specs, Michael Gothard gives a barnstorming performance as the witch-hunting Father Barre.  Indeed, his volubility will surprise viewers who remember him chiefly as Locque, Roger Moore’s silent, expressionless foe in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only.  More nuanced is Murray Melvin, playing Father Mignon, a priest suspicious of Grandier who first alerts the conspirators to what’s happening in the convent.  Later – but too late – he realises that Grandier is innocent of the charges against him.


© Russo Productions / Warner Bros.


Gemma Jones is sympathetic and convincing as Madeleine, the woman whom Grandier covertly marries and the film’s only properly virtuous character.  Abandoning his philandering ways, he comes to regard her as his soulmate.  It’s difficult to imagine that Jones in The Devils is the same actress who plays the title character’s mother in the Bridget Jones trilogy – three movies that are the extreme opposite of everything that Russell stood for in the British film industry.


Ultimately, though, The Devils belongs to its two stars.  Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of Sister Jeanne ranges from the unhinged and monstrous to the pitiful and pathetic, often within the same scene.  The war in her soul between sensuous yearning and stultifying piety is symbolised externally by the contrast between her comely face and the grotesque hump protruding from her back.


Then there’s Reed, at the height of his physical and acting powers – powers that, alas, would wane as he grew evermore fond of the bottle, his drunken antics on chat-shows like Aspel, The Word and After Dark became the stuff of legend and his career went through the floor.  Here, though, he dominates the film.  He makes Grandier absolutely believable as, simultaneously, a heroic leader of men, a cerebral theologian and a sensation-hungry scoundrel.   His performance reaches a peak of intensity during the trial scenes.  Reed stuck to films and avoided the theatre, lacking the patience to go out and parrot the same lines night after night, but when you see him in verbal combat with Sutton before a row of judges (fearsomely clad in Ku Klux Klan-like white robes), you feel this would have been a brilliant piece of acting to watch live on a stage.


There follows the film’s cruel and despairing finale.  Grandier is found guilty and tortured by Barre, who uses a hammer to smash his feet to a pulp.  Then he’s burned alive in the middle of a city square, in front of a nightmarishly drunken and jeering crowd – no longer does Grandier command the loyalty and affection of Loudon’s citizens.  (Unlike Gladiator, this is an Oliver Reed film where the crowd doesn’t love him.)  Particularly horrible are the moments when Grandier continues to pontificate in a half-defiant, half-pleading voice while his face blackens and blisters in the flames.  The scene was filmed long before the advent of CGI and its impact comes from the skills of the actors, make-up artists and practical special-effects team.  I can’t imagine it was a comfortable one for Reed to shoot.


The Devils certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  My partner, who’s no prude, doesn’t like it especially.  She admires the performances and set design, but the dearth of sympathetic characters and the glut of totally unsympathetic ones, and the unrelenting venality, hypocrisy and superstitious stupidity on display, prevent her from enjoying it much.  However, if you can stomach the film’s bleak view of humanity, and you value Ken Russell’s operatic directing style, The Devils is second to none.


Or indeed, second to nun…  Well, I’m sure Ken and Ollie would have appreciated the pun.


© Russo Productions / Warner Bros.


Ballard rises


(c) Recorded Picture Company / Film4 / StudioCanal


J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise, about a community living in a towering luxury apartment complex who gradually lose their marbles and grow dysfunctional and then dystopian, was first published in 1975.  However, I read it a decade later, after I’d become a massive fan of Ballard’s stories of psychological and sociological aberration.  So in my mind the novel is connected more with the 1980s.  I imagined the book’s well-heeled but losing-it characters as sleek Thatcherite yuppies.  Indeed, a few years after I read it, the Canary Wharf business district, including the 50-floor One Canada Square that for many years was Britain’s tallest building, started to spring up in east London.


Now, an additional three decades later, director Ben Wheatley, producer Jeremy Thomas and scriptwriter Amy Jump have unveiled their film version of High Rise and given it a strongly retro-1970s aesthetic.  Thus, when I watched it the other day, it was slightly discombobulating to see a book written in the 1970s, read by me in the 1980s, brought to the screen in the 2010s and set in a world that is the filmmakers’ exaggerated reimagining of the 1970s.


Just how retro-1970s is Wheatley and co.’s take on High Rise?  Answer: very.  There’s the stylistically gruesome 1970s – blokes wear flared trousers and have shit moustaches (Luke Evans’ moustache is particularly shit), ladies totter about on platform heels, everyone puffs on cigarettes.  There’s the happy, silly 1970s – Abba get referenced with a version of SOS, though it’s actually Portishead doing a slow, spooky rendition of the song.  And there’s the apocalyptic 1970s, the 1970s that had Britain’s conservatives worried their country was going to hell in a handcart – we catch a glimpse of Mary Whitehouse’s least favourite children’s comic, the notoriously violent Action (or ‘the seven-penny nightmare’ as it was dubbed by horrified tabloids); and we hear punk rock arrive in the form of Mark E. Smith of the Fall snarling his way through 1979’s Industrial Estate.  And the piles of garbage that accumulate with disconcerting speed in the high-rise building’s foyer bring to mind Britain’s strike-plagued Winter of Discontent in 1978/79.


(c) Recorded Picture Company / Film4 / StudioCanal


It’s no surprise that Wheatley has opted for this setting because 1970s British culture is clearly a big influence on him.  His earlier movies Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013) owe much to the 1970s British ‘folk horror’ films The Wicker Man (1973) and Blood on Satan Claw (1970); while his amusing black comedy about caravanning serial killers, Sightseers (2012), is a reworking of the famous 1976 TV play by Mike Leigh, Nuts in May (with a body count, obviously).  He’s also described the visionary British directors Nicholas Roeg, Ken Russell and John Boorman, all of whom hit their creative peak in the 1970s, as ‘the holy trinity’ for him.  I wonder if he was attracted to High Rise not so much because of the chance to film a J.G. Ballard novel as because of the fact that long ago it’d been a directorial project for his one of his heroes, Nicholas Roeg.


That’s not to say that Wheatley’s cinematic tastes diminish High Rise as an adaptation of a literary work.  It doesn’t lose the peculiar flavour of the original novel or its author. In fact, compared to the previous big movie versions of Ballard’s work, Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987) and David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), both of which bear the unmistakable stamp of their directors’ personalities, High Rise is the most Ballardian film of a Ballardian book yet.


We get that strange combination, so typical of Ballard, of well-bred, buttoned-up Englishness – like boys in a posh boarding school, the men in High Rise refer to one another by their surnames – and creeping madness.  In High Rise, like in much of his fiction, the characters tend not to resist the cataclysm that’s taking place around them. They conspire with and embrace it instead.  Here, while life in the building gradually goes tits-up through an escalating series of lift malfunctions, power-failures, water-stoppages and outbreaks of anti-social behaviour, its inhabitants don’t seem that bothered.  They celebrate the process by partying in the corridors and need little incentive before they graduate to staging raids against rival floors and finally to killing each other.


Tom Hiddleston neatly captures this unsettling blend of conventionality and insanity, repression and regression, in his portrayal of the main character, Robert Laing.  He’s a gentleman physiologist who moves into one of the building’s shiny new apartments but who never gets around to unpacking the stacks of boxes containing his possessions.  He ends up wearing the metallic grey paint he’s bought for redecorating the place like war-paint.  (This is after he nearly beats to death a customer who also wants the paint in the building’s 15th-storey supermarket: “It’s my paint!”)  By the movie’s finish – which also serves as its prologue – Hiddleston is acting out the novel’s opening line, which incidentally is one of the greatest opening lines in modern British literature: “As he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”


(c) Recorded Picture Company / Film4 / StudioCanal


Wheatley is also well-served by the supporting cast, which includes Luke Evans, Sienna Miller, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Reece Shearsmith and Bill Paterson; and, in the role of Royal, the architect who designed the high rise and now lives at its top in an opulent penthouse surrounded by rooftop gardens, Jeremy Irons.  Early on, we see Irons and his wife hosting a fancy dress party with the theme of the Palace of Versailles, the Ancien Régime and Louis XVI, which is tempting fate when the less wealthy families on the lower floors are already getting pissed off about the faltering infrastructure.


High Rise won’t be everyone’s cup of tea and it doesn’t surprise me that it’s received mixed reviews, with detractors throwing around terms like ‘muddle’ and ‘dog’s dinner’.  Anyone expecting a straightforward yarn wherein folk in a block of flats go Lord of the Flies will be disappointed.  Ballard was never terribly interested in linear narratives and Wheatley honours the tradition by providing scenes that seem randomly hallucinogenic, comedic and horrific.  Like Ballard’s fiction generally, the film is stuffed with ideas that are played around with for a while before being discarded.  And given that some of the characters appear a bit unhinged even when the high rise is functioning normally, it’s a bit difficult to develop a logical plot here.  How do you chart a descent into collective madness when several participants seem mad anyway?


Nonetheless, I greatly enjoyed High Rise and I assume other fans of J.G. Ballard’s work will enjoy it too; and I suspect the great man himself – who died in 2009 – would have got a big kick out of it.  I found the film enthralling and compulsive, disturbing and at times unfathomable; and since seeing it I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.  Which is the same effect that Ballard’s books have always had on me.  A result for Ben Wheatley, I’d say.