Gustav Mahler (Robert Powell) is a composer who is having a curious dream. He sees a beach where he is represented by a stone head, and next to him is a figure struggling to emerge from a chrysalis which on waking he realises was meant to be his wife, Alma (Georgina Hale). He tells his wife this, as she is right next to him in the train carriage they are sitting in, but she is not interested and trying to hide her concern about the state of his health, which in recent years has been growing ever more fragile. The train will take them through Austria, and on the way the slightly delirious Mahler will look back upon his life, which may not have much longer to go...
Writer and director Ken Russell made his name with a selection of biographies he filmed for BBC television's arts programmes during the 1960s, infuriating and delighting the viewers in equal measure. This would mark a pattern that would continue throughout the seventies, although the overwhelming critical opinion was that he leaned far too much towards the fatuous and garish to ever be taken entirely seriously. This meant that his masterpiece, The Devils, a work that was tailor-made for his sensibilities, was lambasted while the decidedly more low key Mahler was welcomed with almost universal appreciation.
It was as if the establishment were saying to this middle-aged rebel, that's more like the thing we want to see you do, tackle high culture with a sense of restraint. Perhaps it was because Russell had dealt with the tragedies and troubles of Mahler's life with a more tender hand than he had with Tchaikovsky in The Music Lovers, but that was not to say he felt any less passionate about the work. And in spite of a toned down Ken at the helm of this biopic, he still went a little crazy in his representations of his subject's dream life, so every so often we were treated to an over the top item to demonstrate Mahler's inner conflict.
Russell was obviously working with a lower budget than he did on, say, Tommy, and perhaps that is why this film was better received as this forced him to operate on a lower lever of outrageousness. The family life of the composer is handled with surprising sensitivity, with Alma's ambitions to composing thwarted by her husband who has a streak of self-loathing that he does not wish his spouse to share, or perhaps he does not want to be overshadowed. Whichever, the other composers in his family show that the drive for creativity is more of a burden than any source of joy, and if you're looking for depictions of the suffering artist, look no further than here for an abundance of it.
But as I say, in between the memories of Mahler's life which surface during his journey, from his childhood to his adult successes (which do not include showing the much talked about conducting), there are a few flights of fancy. This starts in the opening ten minutes with that chrysalis sequence, and this is swiftly followed by an near-parodic allusion to Death in Venice where a Dirk Bogarde lookalike is entranced by a young boy idly playing on the platform. Later there is a reference to Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr when Mahler envisages himself trapped in a coffin during his funeral, although Dreyer neglected to include high kicking stripteases in his vision of nightmare. The best known part sees Mahler give up his Jewish faith to become head of the Venice Opera, which Russell sees as a comic Wagnerian affair, including slaying a fire breathing dragon and Mahler crucified by Wagner's Nazi-dressed wife, very entertaining but this time around these fantasies do rather stick out amongst the more intimate emotions of the rest of the drama.
It was trips to the cinema with his mother that made British director, writer and producer Ken Russell a lifelong film fan and this developed into making his own short films. From there, he directed dramas on famous composers for the BBC, and was soon making his own features.
After the seventies, which he ended with the biopic Valentino, his popularity declined somewhat with Altered States suffering production difficulties and later projects difficult to get off the ground. Nevertheless, he directed Crimes of Passion, Gothic, Salome's Last Dance, cult horror Lair of the White Worm and The Rainbow in the eighties, but the nineties and beyond saw more erratic output, with many short films that went largely unseen, although a UK TV series of Lady Chatterley was a success. At the age of 79 he appeared on reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother but walked out after a few days. Russell was one of Britain's most distinctive talents, and his way of going passionately over the top was endearing and audacious, while he rarely lost sight of his stories' emotional aspects.