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The Devils (1971, Oliver Reed, Vanessa Redgrave)

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Based on Whiting and Huxley’s play The Devils of Loudun, the film adaptation was always likely to cause controversy in linking a convent, a lewd priest, sexual desires and sexual fulfilment with a story of possession. In the hands of Ken Russell, aided and abetted by the production designs of one Derek Jarman, the controversy surrounding the film was inevitable.

The film details a story of religious and political persecution in 17th century France, where King Louis XII I (Graham Armitage) and Cardinal Richlieu (Christopher Logue) conspire to bring church and state together. As troops are despatched to level the city of Loudun, a key part of the Cardinal’s plan to demonise the Protestant faith and ensure that Catholicism becomes the religious force. Under the guidance of the charismatic Father Grandier (Oliver Reed) the citizens force the retreat of the King’s men. However, unbeknown to Father Grandier, the Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) of Loudun’s convent is sexually obsessed with him, fantasising about him as a Christ-like figure.

Further trouble stalks the priest in the form of the magistrate’s daughter, Phillipe (Georgina Hale) who he seduced but abandoned after falling for and marrying the virginal Madeline de Brou (Gemma Jones). When news reaches Sister Jeanne her revenge is to confess that an incubus named Grandier has visited her, and, as her confessor sees an opportunity for political power, the rumour spreads. The Church dispatch their chief exorcist, Father Barre (Michael Gothard) and aided by the tools of torture soon hears stories of demonic possession first from Sister Jeanne and soon from most of the nuns. As the sadistic exorcists indulge themselves freely, Grandier is found guilty and sentenced to be burnt alive.

For the studios and the censors alike some scenes proved a little rich for their taste and the film suffered a series of cuts that remain in place to this day. As Ken Russell wrote to John Trevelyan (the BBFC censor of the day) ‘Dear John, I’ve slashed the whipping and cut the orgy in two…’. For Russell the film was a political one ‘about the State taking over’, for others the film appeared to be either plain lewd or at worse blasphemous, with some church goers seeking to redeem cinema goers by sprinkling them with Holy Water as they entered the cinema.

Although highly stylised the film is classic Russell and remains an important modern classic that helped define modern cinema, ushering in a vibrant decade of films, pushing the boundaries of acceptable content for the cinema, and helped usher in an era that saw the likes of The Exorcist, A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs .

production details
cast
Oliver Reed as Urbain Grandier
Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne
Dudley Sutton as Baron de Laubardemont
Max Adrian as Ibert
Gemma Jones as Madeleine
Murray Melvin as Mignon
John Woodvine as Trincant
Christopher Logue as Cardinal Richelieu
Michael Gothard as Father Barre
Georgina Hale as Philippe
Brian Murphy as Adam
Graham Armitage as Louis XIII
Andrew Faulds as Rangier
Kenneth Colley as Legrand
Judith Paris as Sister Judith
Catherine Willmer as Sister Catherine
Iza Teller as Sister Iza

crew
Director: Ken Russell
Writer: Ken Russell from novel by Aldous Huxley and play by John Whiting

UK | 111 minutes | 1971

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