Thursday, 4 June 2015
Gothic (1986, Ken Russell)
Ken Russell's "Gothic" has a title both redolent of itself and the literary genre whose birth it charts. The renowned English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Julia Sands), his soon-to-be wife Mary Godwin (Natasha Richardson), and Mary's highly-strung stepsister Claire Clairmont (Miriam Cyr) travel to the Villa Diodati in Switzerland to be house-guests of the infamous exile Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) and his fawning physician Dr John Polidori (Timothy Spall). After an evening of excess imbibing laudanum and reading ghost stories to combat the boredom due to being kept inside by a lightning storm, all five denizens of this house of horrors (the Universal-esque title "House of Byron" would have been just as apt) must contend with nightmarish hallucinations and come face to face with their innermost terrors.
As a literary biopic, viewers may find Russell's trademark auteur-ial flourishes offputting, but they are well suited to the subject matter and the larger than life grotesqueries of the characters themselves. Gabriel Byrne portrays the club-footed and lascivious Byron with great relish, and is reminiscent of the gentlemen who essayed the role in the opening prologue to "The Bride of Frankenstein". Spall is twitchy and nervy as Polidori, barely suppressing his homosexual lust for his devilish master, and conflicted with the Catholic upbringing that teaches him such feelings are evil. Polidori would come to chart his leanings, and his tortured feelings for Byron, in "The Vampyre": in which the Western world's first literary bloodsucker Lord Ruthven is a thinly-veiled portrait of the poet.
Julian Sands (the "Warlock" himself!) and Miriam Cyr give a good acquittal of themselves as a soppy and foppish Shelley and the hysterical Claire respectively, but the showpiece of the film is in my opinion the performance of the late Natasha Richardson as the nascent Mary Shelley, whose nightmares of her stillborn child and yearning to bring it back to life give birth (pun intended) to the legend of "Frankenstein". The sequence in which Mary sees a grotesque version of herself - looking spookily like Erica Blanc's succubus from "The Devil's Nightmare" - nursing a baby's skeleton in a crib stayed with me for a long, long time (perhaps i shouldn't have been watching this at eight years old..?).