DVD Review: The Devils

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Review: The Devils (18) / Director: Ken Russell / Screenplay: Ken Russell / Starring: Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Reed, Dudley Sutton, Max Adrian, Gemma Jones, Murray Melvin, Michael Gothard, Georgina Hale, Brian Murphy / Release Date: Out Now

The DVD release of The Devils (courtesy of the British Film Institute who took custody of the film due to the absolute disinterest of Warner Brothers in having anything to do with it) might be the most important ’classic film’ release of the year. And make no bones about it, whatever your view of this extraordinary movie - and having finally watched it for the first time I’m still not quite sure what I think of it - The Devils is an important and ground-breaking piece of 20th century cinema.

Fans who have waited patiently for the movie to become available on DVD might be frustrated by the fact that the version presented here is the original X certificate 1971 UK release and not the little-seen 2004 reconstruction. However, their disappointment is likely to be tempered by the wealth of bonus material included on this generous, attractively-packaged two disc set.

Based on a ‘true story’, The Devils is set in the village of Loudon in seventeenth century France. It tells of Father Grandier (Reed) who is accused of entering into a pact with Satan and corrupting the local convent of Ursuline monks, particularly the hunch-backed Sister Jeanne (Redgrave) whose erotic obsession with the darkly charismatic Grandier leads to the eventual downfall of the town. According to writer Aldous Huxley, on whose book ‘The Devils at Loudon’ the movie is based, the whole incident was a conspiracy by Cardinal Richelieu who was determined to destroy self-governing states, such as Loudon, in order to strengthen the sovereignty of the King of France.

Even now, over forty years after its release The Devils is still strong stuff and it’s not hard to understand why it caused such a furore when it first appeared. Its director’s vision was compromised by the demands of the censor and the film itself was pilloried by critics who railed against its graphic depictions of sexual depravity and violence. But these weren’t the film’s only problems; many a brow was furrowed at the questions The Devils was asking about the power of the church and organised religion, political persecution and the corrupt nature of the relationship between the church and the Crown.

Inevitably the film’s legend seems to focus on its travails at the hands of the censors and the critics rather than the film itself. Indeed, it was too often dismissed as a celebration of perversion and even, most unfairly, as just a bad film. This is patently nonsense; subject matter notwithstanding, The Devils is a stunningly-realised work. Russell’s very singular vision is beautifully brought to the screen with the aid of Derek Jarman’s stark and striking sets (the town of Loudon was erected on the backlot at Pinewood) and Shirley Russell’s evocative and opulent costume design. Best of all, though, are the performances. Oliver Reed was never better than here as the brooding, powerful Grandier. Redgrave is breath-taking as the fanatical Sister Jeanne and the late Michael Gothard is suitably maniacal as the barking mad witch-hunter Father Barre. Perhaps most disturbing of all is the presence of British sitcom icon Brian Murphy (George and Mildred, Last of the Summer Wine) during one of the more graphic orgy sequences. What would Mildred have said?

The Devils in 2012 remains a powerful and affecting film. The final sequences of Grandier facing his fate at the stake, flames blistering and charring his face as he refuses to confess to crimes he’s not committed, is in its way as haunting and disturbing as the similar ‘burning of the innocent’ in The Wicker Man a couple of years later. But time has moved on and what shocked in 1971 - blasphemous visual imagery, nudity and scenes of sexual degradation - whilst not exactly tame, has arguably lost just a little of its potency in the intervening decades. However, The Devils as a film is as powerful and compelling as it ever was, perhaps because the age of auteur directors like Russell (who passed away just last year) has now long gone in a time of ruthless commercialism and films which live or die on their opening weekend box office. The Devils isn’t easy viewing - in some ways it’s not even especially enjoyable viewing - but there’s no doubt that this in an important, striking and thought-provoking movie whose narrative edge has been frustratingly blunted and blurred by the treatment it’s received over the years by the censors and the critics. Ultimately The Devils is an essential purchase for anyone with a real interest in genuinely important cinema.

Special features: Virtually the definition of ‘an embarrassment of riches.’ A chunky 40-page souvenir booklet has an introduction by Mark Kermode, essays on the film’s run-ins with the censors, Jarman’s set designs, memories of Russell, profiles of Reed and Redgrave and more. Elsewhere on the 2-disc set can be found a 1958 Russell short, a 2002 TV documentary about the movie, a 22-minute piece on Russell and his work, on set footage and a 2004 Q&A hosted by Kermode.

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