director: Ken Russell
review by Barry Forshaw
In its day, Ken Russell's film of the life of Mahler was an absolutely must-see proposition. The composer had achieved the kind of pre-eminence that so sorely eluded him in his own lifetime, and was now the number one concert draw in the both the UK and the US, along with the unassailable Beethoven. More than that, Mahler had become the cult composer, a musician who spoke to every generation and seemed to articulate the frustration and alienation of the 20th century, while still providing the exhilaration and excitement of a massive 19th century symphony orchestra.
Ken Russell, too, had not yet blotted his copybook. His wonderfully inventive TV biographies of such composers as Elgar, Debussy and Delius had become classics of the genre, and people were inclined to forgive him the excesses of his Richard Strauss film, in which a pretty exhaustive character assassination was couched in terms as over the top as the Elgar film had been restrained (the Straussfilm now is unseeable; the Strauss estate, horrified at the spleen which Russell had turned on the composer forbade the use of his music in any future showings).
Russell's cinema debut had augured well; after the slight comedy French Dressing, his film of D.H. Lawrence's Women In Love had gleaned critical and audience approval, not least for its graphic sexuality (always a Russell trademark). His Tchaikovsky biopic, The Music Lovers (with a miscast Richard Chamberlain), had unleashed the hysteria that was ultimately to sabotage so much of his work - notably Glenda Jackson writhing naked on the floor of a railway carriage - but hopes were high for his Mahler film.
After all, Mahler was the quintessential modern composer, and the more extreme elements in his music (that had found such disfavour in his own day) would surely find an objective correlative in Russell's in-your-face style. And in its day, Russell's film enjoyed great acclaim. Robert Powell's nervy, highly-strung incarnation of the composer at the end of his life was intelligent and perceptive, even though the actor was visibly too young for the fifty-ish composer. Georgina Hale, an actress who had long been a muse for Ken Russell, also encapsulated the fragile beauty and appeal of the composer's wife Alma, frustrated in her own attempts at composition by her marriage to a demanding genius.
Russell's imagery also matched the frenetic quality of the composer's music, and still has impact today. Much of the film, however, has not worn well: Russell's screenplay now seems far less accomplished than his direction, and rarely escapes the "Morning Ibsen, morning Grieg" syndrome, in which the characters' casual references to great works of art seem banal. And the scenes played strictly for laughs, such as Mahler's cynical conversion to Catholicism to appeal to the anti-Semitic Cosima Wagner, now look like end-of-the-pier stuff.
But what saves the film is the director's obvious love and enthusiasm for the music of Mahler, here authoritatively played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under one of the composer's greatest advocates, Bernard Haitink. It's a shame that the musical extracts are in mono; if ever a composer needed stereo to do justice to his massively detailed orchestrations, it's Gustav Mahler.
The ratio is Academy rather than widescreen; regrettably, there are no extras beyond a trailer - a Russell or Powell commentary would have been welcome.