Dante’s Inferno

Movie Information

Dante's Inferno, part of a series of Classic Cinema From Around the World, will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 23, at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St. in downtown Asheville. Info: 273-3332.
Genre: Biographical Drama
Director: Ken Russell
Starring: Oliver Reed, Judith Paris, Andrew Faulds, Iza Teller, Christopher Logue, Pat Ashton
Rated: NR

No, it’s not an adaptation of The Inferno, it’s Ken Russell’s biographical film about painter/poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Oliver Reed) and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Made in 1967, the film is the most ambitious, longest and in many ways the most daring of the films he made for the BBC. It may also be the most conflicted, because Russell has a kind of love-hate relationship with his subject—not as intense perhaps as those he had with Richard Strauss (Dance of the Seven Veils (1970)) or Richard Wagner (Lisztomania (1975)), but not entirely removed from them either.

Russell admires the basic revolutionary stance of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their attitude against academic art, but he can’t help but decry their excesses and the inescapable level of silliness—or at least pretentiousness—that marked much of their movement. As a result, Dante’s Inferno partly praises Rosetti and his friends and partly mocks them. The truth of the baser and more foolish aspects of their lives keeps poking through the fabric of the film in ever delightfully cheeky—but rarely unkind—ways, as when the romantic ideal of a model reveals herself to be a chewing-gum-snapping airhead of a girl.

Rosetti’s laziness and self-absorption is a primary target. He’s quickly established as undertaking whatever suits him at the moment and whatever promises the most immediate gratification with the least amount of effort. The playfulness here turns dark as Russell starts exploring a theme that will color a great deal of his work—the price paid by those in the sphere of any driven, self-absorbed creator. In this case, the victim is Rossetti’s wife, Lizzie (Judith Paris), who finally commits suicide by drinking laudanum. In a fit of guilt, Rossetti buries his poems with her—only to later be talked into having her dug up so these can be retrieved and published. This act—with which Russell begins his film and to which he will return—provides Russell with one of his most striking fantasy sequences.

The complexity of the film is illustrated by the very unorthodox musical score that uses everything from Gustav Holsts’s The Planets (“Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” and “Neptune, the Mystic” are brilliantly used) to the kitsch compositions of Albert Ketelbey to, of all things, popular tunes like “I Want to Be Happy,” “Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “If I Had a Talking Picture of You”—all played on a calliope. Considering it had only been a few years since Russell had been allowed to use actors in his TV films, this was a daring move indeed. Similarly, the way the film moves in and out of fantasy is remarkable.

From a specifically Ken Russell standpoint, Dante’s Inferno is also a key work because it was the film that brought him to his beloved English Lake District where so many of his subsequent films were, at least in part, shot. He went there because he’d read about a fight Rossetti and his mistress Fanny Cornforth (Pat Ashton) had had there with gin bottles. The sequence found its way into the film—as did much of the Lake District countryside. The Lake District would continue to be featured in his films through his 1989 film The Rainbow.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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6 thoughts on “Dante’s Inferno

  1. Brian

    I’ve noticed that in some of Russell’s, shall we say “lesser-funded” films, there are scenes that look as if they should be reshot due to props moving or continuity errors. I remember seeing this film and there is a scene where the maid goes into the room where Ollie Reed is lying on the couch, and she opens the blinds, and the entire curtain rod falls onto the floor! Most director’s would reshoot this due to its awkwardness since it doesn’t look like it was supposed to happen. Is this due to the fact that Russell had a small budget and couldn’t afford a retake/reshoot, or that he didn’t care and thought it was the best take? I’ve noticed things like this in some of his other films too.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Actually, I’ve never noticed this moment, so it obviously didn’t make enough impression to get me to ask, “Why didn’t you reshoot that?” I’ve certainly noticed things like it. I can probably point out more “errors” in his films than just about anyone. The question is do they bother me, or are they more than compensated for by other things and by a certain rough-hewn appeal? My answer is probably pretty evident.

  3. I think the accidents make his films more “real” for me. A person can’t “re-take” the accidents that happen during our lives either, we just deal with them and clean it up. Showing that on film helps create a reality that most filmmakers overlook.

  4. Brian

    Was inspired by this review to dust off my Ken Russell at the BBC DVD set and give it a watch. Easily my favorite of his BBC films, even though I wouldn’t say it’s the best (that would be Song of Summer). Oliver Reed at his prime. And it has many horror elements that appeal to me.

    I just purchased a new book on Russell called “Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England’s Last Mannerist”. Amazing book, really. Probably the most scholarly work on Russell ever. But there’s an entire chapter on Pop Goes the Easel, which supposedly influenced everyone from Kubrick to Lindsay Anderson to Antonioni. Where the hell is this film even available?

  5. Ken Hanke

    I was originally slated to contribute to the book in question — an article on Ken’s most recent biographical films (Bruckner, Bax, Martinu) — but time worked against me and I had to bail out on the project. I haven’t read the book yet, so haven’t read the chapter in question. I do have a copy of Pop Goes the Easel, but it unfortunately freezes up on me so I have only seen part of it. Who wrote the chapter on it?

    Having rewatched the BBC films in the set fairly recently, I’m more of the opinion that Isadora is both my favorite and the best of the lot.

  6. Kevin F

    Brian —

    Thanks for the kind words! I am the editor of the book and wrote the chapters on Pop Goes the Easel and Lady Chatterley. Paul Sutton, who is currently working on a full-scale biography of Russell, wrote the survey chapter on the BBC films.

    And Ken, I still owe you a copy. I haven’t forgotten. Just been insanely busy.

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