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.