2012, UK (This review pertains to the Region 2 DVD format)
Ken Russell passed away last November, he died with the knowledge that his most
infamous film was finally going to be unleashed to the public after laying
almost dormant for over forty years. Russell often described The Devils
as his only political film, and it features magnificent sets and costumes,
theatrical performances, dizzying camerawork and masterful use of music. And of
course, dozens of hysterical nuns.
The Devils is based on the true account
researched by Aldous Huxley of the trial and execution of Father Grandier
(Oliver Reed) in the French town of Loudun in 1634, following accusations of
possession and witchcraft involving a Mother Superior (Vanessa Redgrave) and
the nuns of her convent. It is a powerful depiction of what can happen when
Church and State become powerful and corrupt. Reed was never better than in
this film. He is masterful and perfectly in control as the lunacy around him
descends from farce to true horror. Vanessa Redgrave is incredible as the
twitchy, hunchbacked Sister Jeanne whose lustful repressed desires for Father
Grandier provide the catalyst for Cardinal Richelieu to move in with his
inquisitors and seize control of the town. In the process the nuns are
encouraged to act as if possessed by demons, leading to shocking scenes of
debauchery which are provided for the amusement of tourists, and even the King
insisted that everything in the film was based on historic fact, indeed Huxley
noted some things the nuns did that even he felt would be going too far.
Despite its claim tohistorical accuracy, and the quality of the performances,
the sets, the score and the direction, Warner Bros. were appalled by the
finished film. Russell expected some difficulties with the BBFC and other
censorship bodies around the world, but the studio demanded more cuts than the
censors did. The version that was released in the UK still retained a lot of
shocking material, but the US release
was so butchered that it barely made any sense. Russell was outraged by the way
his film was treated, but fortunately it did not prevent him from continuing to
make great films throughout the decade.
The bizarre and graphic sequences in Russell's original cut resulted in the film being heavily censored.
2004 with the assistance of film critic Mark Kermode some of the missing
material from The Devils was located and restored by the British Film
Institute. The most notable section has become known as “The Rape of Christ”,
and depicts several naked nuns writhing on a massive crucifix in Loudun
Cathedral, in their eyes committing the ultimate blasphemy. It is powerful and
memorably disturbing. Warner Bros. have finally allowed the BFI to finally
release The Devils on DVD, but also withholding this previously missing
footage. The new DVD features the 1971 UK X-rated cut, which is the longest and
most complete version of the film released anywhere in the world. It is hoped
that at some point in the future Warner Bros. will finally allow the full
version to be released. This 1971 version is still an incredibly piece of
filmmaking, and the DVD restoration team have performed an amazing job. The
picture quality is phenomenal, and Derek Jarman's sets have never looked so
stark and foreboding.
are some excellent extras provided in this two disc set, including a new
commentary with Ken Russell and Mark Kermode, the 2002 documentary “Hell on
Earth”, a contemporary making of documentary, some on-set home-movie footage,
and a restoration of one of Russell's first films, Amelia and the Angel
(1958), which has similar themes of religion and redemption.
The Devils is a film with
notoriety, and this BFI release allows us at long last to see it and make up
our own minds. It is an astonishing piece of work on every level, and this
release will rightfully cement Ken Russell's reputation as a true visionary and
one of the finest directors the United Kingdom ever produced.
Cinema Retro issue #21 for John Exshaw's detailed exploration of The Devils)