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Ken Russell themes    



Ken Russell Russell's conversion to Catholicism has similarities with that of novelist Graham Greene. Like Greene it occurred just as Russell's life changed: meeting his wife and starting his career. And like Greene his belief changed over the years, but always influenced his work. There are three overlapping phases: the devout Catholic, the Catholic testing faith to its limits, and the irreverence of later years as organised religion fails to live up to expectations.


The devout Catholic

The early amateur films, and his BBC films, show Russell's Catholicism. Even the fornicating priest in Song of Summer, played by Russell, merely reinforces character Eric Fenby´s deep religious beliefs.

The early amateur film Amelia and the Angel (1958) is a tale of an everyday miracle. Amelia has a role as an angel in her school play, but when she disobeys her teacher and takes her wings home, the wings are damaged. She prays to a religious picture on the wall then searches for her angel's wings, eventually obtaining them from a Christ-like painter and his model, both identical to the characters in the painting of her prayers.

Amelia and the Angel

Lourdes (1958) is a documentary, with Russell among the faithful and the desperate, as well as the locals who earn a living from them.  Elgar confirms his faith.

Lourdes Lourdes Ken Russell Elgar


Testing the faith, the problems of Catholicism

But Russell began questioning the religion more, and by The Devils healthy scepticism has set in. The Devils (1971) looks at (in Graham Greene's terminology) a whisky priest- a priest who sins. Urban Grandier has many lovers, but turns out to be a true believer and martyr in a corrupt world of politician priests.

Tommy (1975) looks in a lighter way at failed messiahs, with Marilyn Monroe replacing the Virgin Mary. Tommy himself walks on water and is continually a Christ image. And despite the corruption around him, Tommy never sins or condemns.

Ken Russell The Devils Ken Russell Tommy

Later work such as The Strange Affliction of Anton Bruckner (1990) have equally naive believers lost in a modern world.


Catholicism as slapstick

The final phase was mockery of the church, with nuns and Christ figures appearing everywhere simply as figures of fun or to shock. On the DVD commentary to The Lair of the White Worm, Russell says with great honesty and insight as well as humour, “oh some nuns, they must have escaped from another of my films”.

In Tommy the Christ imagery was used in a religious way but in the following film Lisztomania (1975) it is slapstick, with Ringo Starr as the pope, Elvis Presley and Pete Townsend as icons, and Roger Daltry playing a bedroom-farce Christ.

Lisztomania Lisztomania Lisztomania

As Russell moved into satire and comedy, religion in his films was slowly downgraded to the same level as Vampirism, and the new whisky priests (Anthony Perkins in Crimes of Passion 1984) were stereotypes with no redeeming features.

Lair of the White Worm Crimes of Passion


Beyond belief

Russell seems to have moved beyond devout Catholicism. Possibly no longer a practising Catholic, he no longer seems to have a Catholic message, either of devotion or satire. On a radio interview he said "once a Catholic always a Catholic" and said he was practising "in my own way".  Religion is now part of his repertoire, to be used when required, from comic vicars (Lion's Mouth 2001) to acts of faith (the opera Mefistofeles 1989).

Lions Mouth the opera Mefistofeles Altered States Altered States Prisoners of Honor

Sacrifice is a theme of many Russell films- Eric Fenby and Alma Mahler both sacrifice their careers, with Alma literally burying her creativity, and Dreyfus is sacrificed for the French state. Resurrection is a theme in Aria, The Lair of the White Worm and Dante's Inferno. Faust is used in Altered States, and the operas Mefistofeles and Faust.

The following films have explicit religious elements:

devotion Lourdes
Amelia and the Angel
Portrait of a Soviet Composer
Song of Summer
The Rainbow
Prisoners of Honor
scepticism The Devils
Altered States
Christ and crucifixions Amelia and the Angel
The Devils
Lair of the White Worm
whisky priests Song of Summer
Crimes of Passion
The Devils
Lion's Mouth



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