The time is the 17th Century, and the place is France where the decadent King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) has made a deal with the ambitious Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) to make the link between Church and State even stronger. Meanwhile in the town of Loudun, the Governor has been laid to rest after expiring from the effects of the plague, something the citizens are not as exposed to as much as some of their countrymen thanks to the high walls surrounding them - this also keeps out any enemy troops, for this is a place with unfashionably liberal views on religion and politics...
Which naturally spell its doom when the town's leaders' hopes for peace and tolerance are put under dire threat by that marriage of Church and State we see organised at the beginning. This was one of the most controversial films of the nineteen-seventies, and remains a contentious work to this day as it took what its writer and director Ken Russell admitted was his only truly political work and brought it to the screen as part full-blooded horror movie and part scream of rage at the horrendous injustice of the events we see played out before us, events a title card tells us at the beginning were all too genuine.
Understandably this roar against religion and its corrupting influence, used as a weapon to keep the citizens in line or else face dire consequences, drew outrage from those who felt they were being misrepresented, yet Russell not only had two respected literary texts to draw from, but he had history on his side into the bargain. Rendering this an even more convincing picture of how the public are victims of misdirection by the conniving and power hungry were a clutch of excellent performances from one and all, with Oliver Reed at his career best as the much-maligned Urbain Grandier, the priest who sees what is happening around the town he had pledged to protect, and knows he must do his utmost to prevent its fall.
Not that Grandier is a perfect example of morals, for he is an inveterate womaniser which has made him the object of much lust among the female population, something he is only too happy to go along with: early on one of his mistresses tells him she is pregnant, and he basically says "Good luck with that," before moving onto his next conquest. So everyone here is painted as a sinner of some stripe or other, except some sins are more forgivable than others, with Grandier's pride triggering his downfall, but not excusing him. Indeed, in comparison to his enemies, he is far more noble and of greater understanding of human compassion than any of those who set themselves against him - his suffering to follow ironically makes him all the more saintly thanks to him marrying one mistress against the Church's orders for purest, redeeming love.
Then there was Vanessa Redgrave in another career highlight for her as the hunchbacked, sexually frustrated Mother Superior who is obsessed with Grandier even though he has never met her - she, on the other hand, spies on him from her convent at every opportunity and yearns to feel his touch, to the extent that her fantasies about the priest erupt into fullblown hallucinations of a religious variety. Envisioning him as Christ coming down from the cross so she may caress and lick his wounds, for example - you can see why Russell was accused of blasphemy in some quarters, but also that these are all in the head of a very sick woman. Such is her sickness that she ends up accusing Grandier of being in consort with the Devil and possessing her.
Not to mention the other nuns in the order. Often in the nunsploitation genre the representation of such Brides of Christ getting up to sexual no good was simply to fuel the fantasies of the audience, yet here Russell makes it clear that yes, this was a sensational event, but disgust is what we should be feeling because their manufactured mania is playing into the hands of those who are out to deprave the social fibre of a country which could well do without their drive for absolute influence. Certainly there were sequences bordering on the ridiculous here - the dark humour was intentional - but such was the searing intelligence behind them that The Devils quickly builds to an incredible intensity, coupled with a righteous anger that Grandier may have been no angel, but he was a man of integrity where it mattered. He had seen that this nation was being sent down the toilet (Derek Jarman's superb art design makes this plain) by the hypocrites and the sanctimonious, whipping a community into a frenzy of misplaced opprobrium while blinding them to the real threat. The Devils was Russell's masterpiece, one of the greatest British films ever made. Unnerving music by Peter Maxwell Davies.
[The BFI present this on DVD in the UK for the very first time, in its original X certificate version. Some may grumble that this is not the director's cut, complete with the notorious "Rape of Christ" sequence, but it's still a fantastic film and rather this than the U.S. R-rated version. For extras there's the 1990s TV documentary on the film, various interviews segments, a charming early short film by Russell, trailers, a commentary from him, the editor and Mark Kermode, and an informative booklet.]
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.