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Devils, The (1971)

Courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Main image of Devils, The (1971)
35mm, Panavision, colour, 111 mins
Directed byKen Russell
Production CompanyWarner Bros.
 Russo Productions
Produced byRobert H. Solo
 Ken Russell
ScreenplayKen Russell
PhotographyDavid Watkin
Set DesignDerek Jarman
MusicPeter Maxwell Davies

Cast: Vanessa Redgrave (Sister Jeanne); Oliver Reed (Father Urbain Grandier); Dudley Sutton (Baron De Laubardemont); Max Adrian (Ibert); Gemma Jones (Madeleine); Murray Melvin (Father Mignon)

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17th century France. Cardinal Richelieu has abolished self-government of towns, and the ruler-priest of Loudun, Urbain Grandier, is tried for heresy, courtesy of evidence supplied by Sister Jeanne, a nun whose sexual obsession with him is interpreted as the mark of the devil.

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Released in the wake of his notorious television biopic of Richard Strauss, Dance of the Seven Veils (BBC, tx. 15/2/1970) and his equally lurid cinema film about Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers (1970), The Devils became Ken Russell's most controversial film, a status it has maintained to the present day. Critically savaged at the time, it has since been reassessed as one of the most powerful and original British films of its era, a serious, multi-layered study of political and religious conviction whose many excesses are nonetheless fully justified by the context.

It's based on the historical events that transpired in the French city of Loudun, which had already inspired Aldous Huxley's book The Devils of Loudun (1953) and John Whiting's play The Devils (1961), both credited as sources. The same events had also inspired Jerzy Kawalerowicz' film Mother Joan of the Angels (Poland, 1961) and Krzysztof Penderecki's opera The Devils of Loudun (1969). All stuck reasonably closely to the established facts: that the French political establishment of the time, led by the Machiavellian Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue), deliberately exploited and manipulated rumours of demonic possession of the Loudun convent in order to justify breaching the city's hard-won political independence.

Oliver Reed gives one of his finest performances as the turbulent priest Urbain Grandier, a man who, although not remotely saintly, is nonetheless so consistent in his religious and political convictions that he favours torture and death over compromise. He is well matched by Vanessa Redgrave's hunchbacked Sister Jeanne, whose erotic obsession with him fuels the hysterical fervour that ends up sweeping the entire convent. This culminates in a pivotal scene (originally cut by the BBFC and not restored until 2004) in which the nuns desecrate assorted religious icons, including a statue of Christ, in an orgiastic frenzy after King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) deliberately undermines the entire basis of their faith.

There was also some outstanding work behind the camera. Even if he'd never directed a single film, Derek Jarman's set designs would have made an indelible mark on British film history. His vision of Loudun is one of radiant whiteness, every building covered with pristine tiles, which ironically makes them that much easier to defile and destroy. Another memorable creative contribution came from the composer Peter Maxwell Davies, whose only original film score is a cacophony of jarring dissonance that perfectly matched Russell's depiction of the breakdown of civilisation.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Delusions of Grandier (2:57)
2. Heresy! (2:51)
Production stills
Dance of the Seven Veils (1970)
Baird, Stuart (1947-)
Jarman, Derek (1942-1994)
Rawlings, Terry (1933-)
Redgrave, Vanessa (1937-)
Reed, Oliver (1938-1999)
Russell, Ken (1927-2011)
Russell, Shirley (1935-2002)
Censoring The Devils
Sex and Violence in the 1970s