Director: Ken Russell
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Over the past two days, as the news got worse and worse about Natasha Richardson, one thought kept running through my head. The last movie of hers I’d seen, on Monday, was Blow Dry, a barely watchable bit of fluff that suited my distracted mind at the time. “I can’t know she’s dead with that floating around in my mind about her,” I thought. So last evening, before we got the official news of her passing, I watched Gothic.
The hubby and I tried to watch Gothic some months ago, but the library copy was damaged beyond use. We settled for Haunted Summer (1988), Ivan Passer’s attempt at the same story (and now having seen Gothic, I’m tempted to call it a ripoff of Russell) while waiting for our purchased copy of Gothic to arrive. Where Haunted Summer was a bland and rather adolescent foray into the dark recesses of creativity (as a rule, casting Eric Stoltz in anything will do that), Gothic tells of the genesis of Mary Shelley’s idea for Frankenstein—a laudanum-soaked night of hallucinations with free-love poets Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (Julian Sands), Mary (Richardson), Mary’s half-sister Claire Clairmont (Miriam Cyr), and drug dealer to these literary stars, Dr. John Polidori (Timothy Spall)—the way only Ken Russell can. Gothic is the perfect description for this dark, lush film—a horror story about the making of a horror story.
As the story begins, tourists set up across from Lord Byron’s estate on the shores of Lake Geneva are using telescopes to try to catch a glimpse of the scandalous Byron, hopefully behaving scandalously. The tour guide redirects the gaze of one of the tourists to his bedroom, where Byron is spying back. His attention is diverted to a boat moving toward him, and he runs to greet his great friend Shelley. Shelley, on the other hand, runs to evade two young women who have pursued him from Geneva. A dash through the woods, barking dogs from where and in pursuit of what not clearly spelled out, and a hop over a wall secures Shelley’s safety. Cuts back to Claire, who falls into the water with a maniacal giggle, and Mary, who seems lost, signal their characters beautifully—impetuous, desirable, passionate Shelley; mad, elemental Claire; conventional Mary who seems wholly unsuited to a bohemian lifestyle. The lush music and full orchestration of Thomas Dolby lift us effortlessly into the realm of high art and continue to punctuate the film flawlessly.
Byron is delighted to see Shelley, whom he calls “Shiloh,” but is mildly annoyed that Claire, his most recent lover, has come along. Heedless, Claire runs up the long staircase to find a bed—clearly an invitation to Byron. Mary, who has been greeted with great solicitude by Byron’s servants, is insulted by Byron, who calls her “Mrs. Shelley,” then corrects himself by using the surname “Godwin;” Shelley is still married, though living with Mary and their young son William. Mary ascends the stairs to her room, where she encounters a goat, udder full to bursting (Russell loves breasts of all kinds!), on the landing. “I wouldn’t dream of traveling without my menagerie,” Byron calls out, as a servant leads the beast away. Mary’s impression of Byron is that he is not only bizarre, but cruel, as she can plainly see that he has grown bored with Claire, who is carrying his child.
The theme of the night is established when the guests are invited to read aloud from a book of ghost stories and then to devise their own tales of the uncanny. To this they add a conjuring séance and continuous consumption of laudanum, an opiate that fuels their horrifying visions. The rest of the movie is a fever dream that is a sensuous acid trip for some of them—the professional creatives Byron and Shelley, as well as sensualist Claire—and a very dark night of the soul for tormented, homosexual Catholic Polidori and Mary, who remains haunted by a stillborn son she had with Shelley.
How well you relate to this film may depend on how deeply you care to immerse yourself in Russell’s gothic visions—and perhaps there is a generation gap as well. As a long-time fan of Ken Russell’s perverse and intuitive explorations of religion, sexuality, and creativity, I rate Gothic among his best. It is certainly not without some hackneyed images—for example, Byron calling Polidori a pig repeatedly and then spying a pig’s head on the floor that changes into the good doctor’s head and back again. I’ve also heard some criticism from younger viewers that the breasts with nipples that turn into blinking eyes, an apparent fear of Shelley’s, is a page out of the Pan’s Labyrinth effects book—though, of course, it’s the other way around, seeing as Gothic was made 20 years earlier.
Yet, I find the imagery and circumstances subtle in suggesting the elements of Frankenstein, which is, after all, the reason this historical incident lives on. For example, the night is storming, and lightning strikes a tree. All of the assembled see a shadow that appears alive. They discover the tree burning and sort out what happened—yet, Mary still believes they conjured an evil being standing tall and blazing in the field. Later, when Byron, Shelley, and Mary go to look for Claire, Byron tears his shirt off, wraps it around a stick, and uses it as a torch. The theme of bringing something dead to life runs through Mary’s nightmare evening, as she pictures dead and deformed babies.
Mary sees Byron as a monster, and in one morbidly effective scene, the audience sees Byron as Mary sees him. Finding Claire sleeping, Byron draws a veil over her face like a shroud and appears to perform oral sex on her. When he comes back into view, his mouth is covered in blood. Has Claire been lying about being pregnant, and is the blood menstrual blood? Or has Byron torn the fetus from her womb, acting upon his suggestion of an abortion earlier in the day? Mary’s bourgeois morality fuses with ours and creates an image of innocence crushed, a process she is experiencing and that she speaks out against in cataloguing Byron’s predatory deeds—including seducing his own sister—when he questions her about her belief in free love.
Gabriel Byrne is very effective as a man who lives over the edge but remains in control. Rather than suppress his bisexual urges and upper-class privileges, he renounces England and goes off to do exactly as he pleases. He’s a perfect hedonist and image of a poet who believes in his own truth and his ability to expand it to all humanity through his poetry. Is he a shit? Well, that’s the conventional wisdom about legendary artists, and Russell seems to suggest that while there’s some truth to it, the scourge is a bit overblown. In point of fact, the two most tormented souls of the night, Mary and Polidori, both of whom try to kill themselves, are the ones who produce horror stories that have lasted to this day—Frankenstein and The Vampyre. Suffering, another artistic conceit, seems to have unlocked their dormant creativity.
Spall is genuinely creepy and generally unsympathetic as Polidori, a type of role he has reprised in increasingly shallow characters (the Beadle in Sweeney Todd, for example) as his career has progressed. Sands is fine as Shelley, handsome, romantic, passionate; he lights up the screen whenever he’s on it. Cyr hasn’t got much to do, but she commits her all to a role that requires her to cover her naked body in mud and crouch with a rat in her mouth.
Finally, Natasha Richardson projects the bourgeois trying to break free from convention and finding the creative process the horror that keeps most middle-class individuals safely in their cozy lives. Her creation of Frankenstein is made plausible by the lavish nightmare Russell has constructed, but she isn’t convincing as a woman raised by a feminist and flouting social mores. Here Mary is not complex, and she’s rather a prude as well. Nonetheless, her final panic, during which she attempts to leap from a balcony, is raw in its intensity; her rueful account of what her horror story will be the morning after the night before is filled with a sad wisdom, bringing an unintended note of tragedy to this film from one who has left us too soon.