This was Ken Russell’s follow-up to the career-making Women in Love but harks back to his earlier work in BBC docudramas about classical composers (it’s scripted by Melvyn Bragg, no less) – albeit with the sensationalism kicked up (‘the story of a nymphomaniac who married a homosexual’) and big, attractive stars in the awards-bait lead roles. It has conventional biopic aspects, mostly lampooned – Max Adrian, looking more like Max Wall, plays the director of the musical institute who dismisses the composer’s radical masterpieces as rubbish but still capitalises on them, and some of the dialogue is perfectly cod-Hollywood (‘Either be still or go out … I’m trying to finish the opera’). The yoking-in of a grand theme in Tchaikowsky’s Hitchcockian memories of the death of his mother that eventually come full circle in his own demise (he seems to commit an elaborate suicide, drinking almost-certainly infected water to catch cholera, the disease which killed his mother) is only half-kidded as a structure for the movie.
The main relationship is with Nina (Glenda Jackson), the fan Peter (Richard Chamberlain) marries because he wants a normal home life – a set-up which makes no one any happier, since Peter is still gay and Nina eventually goes mad from sexual frustration and rejection and, after being pimped out by her horrible mother (Maureen Pryor), winds up a shorn-headed, food-grubbing asylum inmate exposing herself to the clutching hands of other mad folks (the final shot of Nina behind bars is identical to that of Peter Sasdy’s Countess Dracula, released barely a month later). Kenneth Colley plays the role of sensible brother Modest (you couldn’t make it up!), who is also the only sane person in the film – while the fabulous creatures include Christopher Gable as the blond, titled lover who won’t let go and Izabella Telezynska the quixotic patron sexually stirred by the music rather than the man. If MTV had a classical music sister station, they’d have to program round-the-clock Russell – as proved by the emotional, witty, subversive, overpoweringly strange montages he used to accompany the canonical works of the orchestral tradition; here, he has the absolute gifts of the 1812 Overture and the Symphonie Pathetique (the funniest line is Modest’s suggestion ‘I’ll give you a title for your symphony – the Pathetic! If it really is all about you’) and does not disappoint in elegy or outrage. No wonder the Who tapped him to make Tommy.
Jackson is astonishing, scratching the carpet like Irena in Cat People in frustration, and going the full maniac – the only way Vanessa Redgrave could top this in The Devils (in a role Jackson declined) is to have a hunchback as well. Chamberlain, always more interesting than his handsome looks suggested, is remarkable too as the genius who simultaneously just wants the peace (and free home) in which to compose but needs the tumult of an all-hours party/orgy/argument to keep at it. In a typically Russellian mix of farce and poetry, the composer first toys with aquatic suicide by jumping in a canal only to find himself wet up to the thighs in shallow water, and then tempted back by the wry smile of a Felliniesque Woman in White (the choreographer Imogen Claire, silent and stunning) who happens to be walking by. With Andrew Faulds (like Jackson, an MP), Bruce Robinson and Ben Aris (the British cinema’s most nostrilly actor).