Probably the most talked about DVD release of 2012 must be Ken Russell’s Film of The Devils, which is finally becoming available in the UK some 40-years after it first caused shock, outrage and a censorship controversy which has lasted until this day.
The late Oliver Reed (in one of his finest performances) stars as the 17th-century French priest Urbain Grandier, who turns from sinner to saint when he and a group of convent nuns, led by Vanessa Redgrave’s sexually-frustrated hunchback Sister Jeanne, become pawns in a game of political chicanery that rips apart the walled city of Loudun and results in Grandier’s trial and execution.
Drawing on actual events that occurred in the town in 1634, Aldous Huxley’s 1952 documentary novel, and inspired by Prokofiev’s Symphony No 3 in C minor, Russell fashioned an incendiary tale about the unholy marriage of church and state that ignites the screen thanks to his startling visuals – much of which would prove troublesome to the British censors of the day.
From ‘Hold my hand. It’s like touching the dead, isn’t it?’ to ‘Give me the kiss of peace and let me die’, every word of Russell’s screenplay is beautifully delivered. It’s also one of the most visually stunning of the period. The late artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman designed the stylised sets of gleaming white stone, which perfectly capture Huxley’s vision of a ‘rape in a public lavatory’ – which is how he viewed the treatment of the real-life Sister Jeanne who was tortured in order to frame Grandier. Meanwhile, the striking score by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies resonates long after the film has reached its gory, fiery climax in which Reed’s vain, human priest is burned at the stake before a baying crowd.
Ken Russell’s film may have been labeled satanic, blasphemous and violently pornographic back in 1971; but today we can view the film with open eyes and see it as the powerful statement on political manipulation and the corruption of religion that it truly is.
Film critic Mark Kermode has fought long and hard to have the film recognised as one of the most important works in post-war British cinema and his contribution is best served in the extras that accompany the new BFI release of the UK theatrical version. These include the 48-minute 2002 Channel 4 documentary, Hell on Earth: The Destruction and Resurrection of The Devils, which traces the history of the film and includes snippets of the film’s infamous censored scenes; and a Q&A with director Russell, who sadly passed away last year.