Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ken Russell's GOTHIC, movie review by Travis Hedge Coke

Ken Russell uses himself to good effect in Gothic. To be more accurate, he uses many people and things excellently in the movie, but it is rare that a filmmaker is willing to use the negative in their public and work persona to better their work, so it's worth mentioning especially. Russell appears to trust the audience to be familiar with at least something of himself, his work, or the historic figures and writings being used, if not all of those elements, and makes the familiarity work to enhance the film or to lure us deeper into its arrangements.

Ostensibly a retelling of the night that Mary Shelley came up with Frankenstein, while various literati developed frightening stories of their own, it begins and ends with every hallmark of artificiality, almost absurdly, theatrically. The cinematography (by Mike Southon) is beautiful and deliberate, but the camera work and editing lose their steadiness, their frame or pace at the most effective moments. Thomas Dolby's score is electric and modern and overly excited, not ever what we anticipate from a "gothic horror movie" and a constant reminder that this is only a movie, while simultaneously being atmospheric enough to embed you deeper into the film.

The characters are introduced abruptly, Percy Bysshe Shelley (here, played by Julian Sands) is chased by fangirl maids with all the cinematography and editing of a serious and dangerous pursuit, we know of Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) before we see him onscreen by the state of his estate, employees and animals pared or arranged everywhere, an ignored fish flopping in barely ounces of water in stone fountain in removal from narrative befitting a Jesus Franco picture. When the cast settle to read ghost stories to one another, they are shown to us as though ripped straight from a Hammer or Amicus production. The house itself, Gaddesden Place doubling as the Villa Diodati in Switzerland, has been seen in over twenty films; it does not look like the Villa Diodati, it looks familiar. As the night progresses, the characters themselves become increasingly familiar, increasingly typed, from Byron's evolution into an utter devil, but a brotherly manly devil, to the caustic virgin/whore dichotomy set up between Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson) and Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr) that anyone who knows more about those women than their names can see is wrong.

So, why run headfirst into stereotypes and familiarity especially when its verifiably wrong, and easily so? Okeh, not everything in a movie is for the diehards and the fact-checkers, but also, everything is not as it seems. This is a movie about fiction, about fears, and if you don't know enough about Byron to go "This is wrong," you may have enough of an inkling about Ken Russell, director of Tommy and Altered States to fear he has got some issues with women, sex, and class on an almost Lovecraftian level. And, in Gothic, Russell wants that. He wants you arguing against the well-powered and functioning artificial stripper that Percy Shelley stumbles upon, the absurd naivete that Mary Shelley is often reduced to. And, to take on the prudes who still want to see something naughty, if only to criticize it later, Russell embraces that he was one of the first English language filmmakers to use full-frontal male nudity respectably and seriously in a film.

Russell teases nudity, refusing to let the camera rest on Julian Sands backside when he is walking on the roof in a thunderstorm being as super-Shelley as he can in delivery and behavior. The orgy scene is superbly tame and quiet casual, as things usually are. These are not teenagers in a pretend-raunchy sex comedy, they're adults. They're Lord Byron and the Shelley's and okeh, Polidori (the brilliant Timothy Spall) acts like a giddy college freshman who will probably end up raping a cheerleader comedically in a Revenge of the Nerds sequel, but that, too, is his neurosis, his huge fear, that he is just this wet behind the ears neophyte sitting temporarily at the grown ups' table.
Sex and blood and responsibility are all present in the movie, as they are present in life, but it is everything they carry with them, that is what makes them notable in Gothic, that they do bear fear with them and are, even while carrying that fear higher and further, omnipresent in our existence. Byron's clubfoot does not need to be shown onscreen, if we know it is there. We need only a few seconds of sex to know there is more going on. A brief glimpse of something horrible and monstrous is more effective than any prolonged visual, a realization used to great effect late in the movie. Gothic is, in that way, a complete film. It requires an entire viewing and perhaps some outside perspective, encourages it. But, as the characters are trapped in the movie and in our mental concept of them as historic figures, Gothic also rewards us to be stuck in the clear wrongness before us on the screen.

1 comment:

Erin O'Riordan said...

It's a brilliant, vexing and bizarre film that won't let the audience off the hook easily. I love it, even though I'm convinced the historical John William Polidori was a good deal more attractive than Timothy Spall (quite a good actor, but no great beauty).

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