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Ken Russell: The Great Passions

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    Ian Jane
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  • Ken Russell: The Great Passions



    Released by: BFI
    Released on: March 28thth, 2016.
    Director: Ken Russell
    Cast: Vivian Pickles, Oliver Reed, James Lloyd
    Year: Various
    Purchase From Amazon

    The Movies:

    With this second three film collection (released alongside Ken Russell: The Great Composers) the BFI offer up on Blu-ray for the first time some of the late, great Ken Russell's early films made for the BBC.

    Always On Sunday:

    The first movie, made in 1965, stars James Lloyd as Henri Rousseau, a painter who worked a day job as a customs clerk, a position that earned him the nickname 'Le Douanier.' As he worked full time to support himself, this didn't leave much time during the week to practice his craft with a brush and so he wound up doing almost all of his painting, obviously, when he wasn't at work.

    The movie tells Rousseau's story, notes his influences and follows him towards the end of his days. We learn of his personal life, how he was widowed, how this affected him and his art and how his paintings became quite popular over time even if they were rather unorthodox in both their subject matter and their style. It's an interesting story and one that proves well suited for Russell's equally unorthodox filmmaking style. James Lloyd, himself a painter in real life (and the subject of a Ken Russell helmed documentary on his own life entitled The Dotty World Of James Lloyd in 1963).

    The title that appears on screen for this presentation of the movie is Henri Rousseau - Sunday Painter, which makes sense given that he had to do all of his painting when he wasn't at work and would have had Sundays off.

    Isadora: The Biggest Dancer in the World:

    Up next, Russell's 1966 production is set in the 1920's where Vivian Pickles starts as American dancer Isadora Duncan. The story fills us in on how she quickly rose to fame and prominence in her day when she relocated to Europe. Here she wound performing for various members of the upper class and, after making a name for herself, wound up tutoring various girls in the art of dance. All the while, we learn what made her bizarre style unique, why it stood out the way that it did and some of the controversies that surrounded her in regards to both her outspoken political views and her penchant for unorthodox exploits in the bedroom. The movie follows her rise to fame and then the ups and downs and then eventually her death.

    The film is a fascinating portrait of a strange character. Russell's take on Duncan's life isn't always kind, it is sometimes quite critical, but it's always interesting to see. In typical Russell fashion the film is part bio-pic and part mad pop art pastiche. The camera is quite busy here, lots of unorthodox angles help to keep things visually appealing and the pacing is quick. The dance scenes are probably the highlight, where music and visuals collide in Russell's trademark style. It's here we can't help but notice how unusual Duncan's sense of grace and movement really is. Her style is bizarre, at times even frantic, and a far cry from the more traditional dance styles that would have been popular in both America and Europe in her day.

    Vivian Pickles plays the part really well, throwing herself into the role and handling the physical side of the part and the dramatic side quite effectively.

    Dante's Inferno:

    The third and final film was made in 1967 as an episode of the BBC series Omnibus. Here Oliver Reed plays Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a wealthy man who would seem to have everything that money can buy. Unfortunately, for all his wealth, he must still tend to his wife as she suffers from a terrible illness. But before we get to all that (the opening alludes to all of this) we learn of his earlier relationships, how a lack of physical intimacy took its toll, his extramarital affairs, his substance abuse problems and then, as everything comes full circle, how his paintings and his poetry was affected by all of this.

    As dark as you'd expect it to be, Russell's take on Dante's Inferno is very well made. The film has a solid pace and lots of impressive visuals, many of which are both eerie and macabre in how they play out. There is a sense of humor behind certain scenes, but it remains a pretty twisted take on the source material clearly filtered through Russell's uniquely skewed vision.

    Putting Oliver Reed in the lead role doesn't hurt either. He stops short of really chewing the scenery but manages to deliver a pretty intense performance here. Judith Paris is also very good as Rossetti's muse, Lizzie Siddal.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    The BFI's presentation of Ken Russell: The Great Passions was transferred in high definition from the archival elements. The fullframe AVC encoded 1080i picture shows good contrast and doesn't suffer from any serious print damage but specs and small nicks and scratches are present throughout. Contrast on the black and white image looks good and those who appreciate a good grainy picture will appreciate the fact that the picture hasn't been scrubbed down or bombarded with heavy noise reduction. Detail is fine considering the age and availability of elements, with close up shots showing the most but even medium and long distance shots showing off the dirt and decay evident throughout Dee's apartment. There aren't any issues with compression artifacts or edge enhancement.

    The three films get English language LPCM Mono audio. The tracks sound fine for what they are, limited in range but clean enough to follow without any issues. Some minor hiss and pops are around but never to the point where it's much of an issue, really. Optional subtitles are provided in English.

    Extras include three commentary tracks - Brian Hoyle on Always On Sunday, Paul Sutton on Isadora
    Brian Hoyle audio commentary for Dante's Inferno and Hoyle gain on Dante's Inferno. Each track is well researched and provides a mix of anecdotal stories about the productions, some interesting facts about who did what on each shoot and some insight into what makes these unique works stand out in Russell's impressive if eclectic filmography. Sutton pops up again in an alternate audio track available over Isadora entitled The Paul Sutton Tapes. This is made up of recordings that Sutton did with cast and crew members involved with the production that he talked to about their work between 2008 and 2012. These differ from the formal commentaries in that they offer some very specific insights into what went on during these shoots. There are a lot of people put in front of the microphone for this and the audio quality is all over the place, but it's interesting stuff regardless.

    The BFI has also included an eighteen minute long interview with Michael Bradsell Interview in which one of Russell's go to editors talks about working with the director on a few different projects, most notably Omnibus which takes up most of the talk. A second featurette, the thirty-one minute long Late Night Line Up: Russell At Work, is a vintage piece from 1966 originally shown to promote the making of Isadora. Here Russell talks about his interesting in biographical pictures as we're treated to some pretty great behind the scenes footage shot on set during the production.

    Although this review is based off of test discs, retail product should also include a DVD version of the movies as well as a booklet of liner notes.

    The Final Word:

    Ken Russell: The Great Passions is a great package in every way. The presentations are much improved over past releases, the extras are comprehensive and interesting and the three features themselves are well very well done.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!






























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