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Ken Russell: The Naked-Nun Theory

Women in Love

"There really is no difference between nuns with no clothes on and tap dancers in goggles. It is all material," said Ken Russell. For the (now–80-something) filmmaker in his prime, art and history were carnival grounds for exhilarating spectacle and romantic mania. A childhood fan of musicals (and, later, The Red Shoes), and a failed but enthusiastic dancer, Southampton-born Russell cut his teeth first on photography and then on a BBC arts program. Taking over from John Schlesinger on the show Monitor, he quietly made often riotously imaginative biographies of composers including Edward Elgar and Debussy. Later, he portrayed Richard Strauss in a Nazi-filled "comic strip in seven episodes," causing a rift — albeit after becoming safely established with a theatrical success, Women in Love. His don't-touch-that-dial eagerness is apparent in the often-bravura openings of his features, including that well-spoken 1969 D.H. Lawrence adaptation. Russell begins by elegantly rendering the novelist's surging ruminations and observations, as sisters Gudrun (Glenda Jackson, in exquisite colors) and Ursula (Jennie Linden) wittily bat about opinions on marriage within sight of a wedding. Despite the acrobatic nude-wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, or Bates' delirious flight into forest and fields earlier, the film keeps one foot on the ground: Lawrence's characters still feel like they are negotiating new ways of loving rather than exploding outward, as in Russell's subsequent work. Russell fatigue — see Mahler, screening with Women on Sunday — is just as real as Russellmania, but his finer moments outlast the noise of admirers and detractors alike. ("Brave New World: An In-Person Tribute to Ken Russell," Aug. 20-22, Egyptian Theatre, americancinematheque.com)

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