Ken Russell, 1927–2011

The director who loved to shock

Ken Russell delighted in testing the limits of good taste. The British film director regaled audiences with images of naked women cavorting in railway carriages and nuns indulging in orgies. Some critics dismissed his movies as pornographic and sensationalist, dubbing the director “the apostle of excess.” Russell shrugged off such attacks. “Whoever heard of a work of art being restrained?” he said.

Born in the English port city of Southampton to a father who owned a shoe store, Russell developed an early love of movies. His father “was given to outbursts of rage,” said, so Russell would often take refuge with his mother in local cinemas. After briefly serving in the merchant navy, Russell moved to London to work as a freelance photographer and filmmaker. In 1959 he took a job at the BBC, where he made a series of stylish documentaries on classical composers, said the London Telegraph. Buoyed by the success and notoriety of these films—his profile of Richard Strauss displayed the composer in a Nazi uniform—Russell progressed to the cinema. His first commercial success came with his 1969 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, which picked up five Oscar nominations and boasted a nude wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed.

He went on to test more taboos. Russell described his 1970 biopic of the composer Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers, as a study of “a homosexual who marries a nymphomaniac.” The following year saw the release of The Devils, a tale of religious fanaticism at a 17th-century French convent, which was “Russell’s most brilliant and audaciously cinematic work,” said the London Guardian. But Warner Bros. cut the movie, as it “didn’t like such things as nuns masturbating at representations of Christ on the cross.”

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By the mid-1980s, Russell found himself marginalized by the cinematic establishment. But even with a career in eclipse, he kept busy, directing films and documentaries for British TV, including an explicit adaptation of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. To the end, he refused to compromise. “‘Reality’ is a dirty word for me,” he said. “There’s too much of it about.”

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