Review of Ken Russell's Gothic

Review of Ken Russell's Gothic

September 1999

At some risk of being driven off the list, I might mention Ken Russell's 1986 film, Gothic which stars Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, Natassha Richardson, Miriam Cyr and Timothy Spall. I've occasionally used a very small clip from this film (about 5 minutes or so) to introduce the topic of the ghost-writing contest. Russell, whose films have included Crimes of Passion, Tommy, Altered States, Women in Love, Dante's Inferno, and Devils, is certainly not known for subtlety, and Gothic is surely no exception, as Russell subjects his audience to 96 minutes of his peculiarly excessive vision of the events of Villa Diodati in June of 1816. In Russell's hands, the events become a nightmare of drugs, sex, horror and (at least in Dr. Polidori's case), self-immolation.

It is probably the note of excessiveness to which I most object; in many respects Russell's twisted vision does more than a little violence to the events of that fateful summer, but there was apparently a certain amount of drug use (laudanum) involved, at least where (Percy) Shelley and Byron were concerned--although Russell's handling of this subject is more reminiscent of the psychedelic 1960s than 1816, and the sexual escapades depicted, if not documented in the journals of Byron, Mary, Percy or Claire, were based on their views of free love at this time. Percy and Claire certainly experimented with seances and other trappings of the occult. The notion of one of their seances actually raising some kind of "horror" in a literal, demonic sense seems pure Russellian silliness--these are perhaps the most offensive scenes to devotees of the Shelleys, particularly the heavy-handed way Russell used the dread of this personified evil as a vehicle for several anachronistic interior monologues reflecting on tragedies from Mary's future.

The dramatization of Mary's waking dream--and her vision of Fuseli's 1781 painting "The Nightmare" lit by flashes of lightning, (I don't know if the painting was there or not, but it's a nice touch) do provide an interesting atmosphere, and this is the portion of the film I've used a few times in my classes. But the film overall is very troubling. As noted, it seems to do a certain violence to the legend of Diodati, but what is even more troubling is the way that Russell managed to get so many small details right. These include Percy's phobias about being buried alive and Mary's nearly obsessive fears about the death of her infant William. Her account of having dreamed that her dead daughter Clara was not dead but cold, and needed only to be rubbed by the fire to make her live, is straight out of Mary's journals. Percy's surrealistic vision of breasts with eyes is based on a real incident, and Claire's unusual temperament (even her fits--noted by Mary as often corresponding to her monthly cycle) are unusually accurate, and the unusual nature of the relationship among Claire, Percy and Mary seems consistent with contemporary accounts. (The incident in which Claire scares herself and jumps into bed with Mary and Percy for comfort is also reported in Mary's journals, even if it actually occurred on a different trip).

Rick Albright