27 April 2019

Review: The Devils (1971)


The late, great Ken Russell's The Devils is one of the few films that is still controversial over forty years after its original release. While other notorious films released the same year such as A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs are now freely available in pristine uncut versions, Ken Russell's full version of The Devils has remained notable due to its lack of availability (except via dubious unofficial releases).

Based on the true events described in Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudun the film tells the tale of Father Urbain Grandier, a priest burnt at the stake for witchcraft, and the political machinations that led to his downfall. It is a story about the sacrificing of an individual by the state to further its own agenda, and was regarded by Russell as his only overtly political film.

In century Loudun the city is left under the protection of Father Grandier following the death of . When emmissaries of Cardinal Richelieu arrive and begin demolising the town walls, Grandier stands up to them claiming the King has previously decreed that Loudun's walls should be preserved.

Meanwhile in order to satisfy her own sexual obsessions the head of the local convent, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), asks for Grandier to become the convent's new confessor. When Grandier refuses and secretly marries another woman, Madeline De Brou (Gemma Jones), Sister Jeanne is driven insane with jealousy.

When Father Mignon, the newly appointed confessor, visits the conventshe informs him of Grandier's marriage and affairs, and also inadvertently accuses Grandier of witchcraft and of possessing her. This is then used as a pretext to charge Grandier with witchcraft.

Oliver Reed delivers the best performance of his career as the doomed priest, with equally effective performances being delivered by Redgrave and Michael Gothard (as witchfinder Father Barre).

It is not difficult to see why The Devils caused such a storm of controversy on its initial release, even in its truncated form (several key sequences were removed before its release and while a restored version has been screened theatrically at the BFI on a number of occasions, it remains unreleased for home viewing).

The Devils is a shocking portrayal of the power of the state over the individual. If the viewer is able to see beyond the hysterical naked nuns cavorting possessed around the convent, and the brutal violence of Grandier's torture and burning, the film is a masterpiece of design (Derek Jarman's sets are incredible) and direction.

The original UK theatrical cut is available on DVD from the BFI.
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