Delius - Song of Summer Review

An astonishingly different side of a director primarily (and unfairly) known for his coarse excesses, Ken Russell’s Delius: Song of Summer is an exquisite revelation. Detailing of the final years of the extraordinary composer Frederick Delius (Max Adrian), now blind and paralysed by syphilis, aided by his long-suffering wife Jelka (Maureen Pryor) and his voluntary amanuenses Eric Fenby (Christopher Gable), the two of them struggle to complete his unfinished works.

At only 72 minutes, its brevity allows for a focus on the difficult and tumultuous three-way relationship between the three main characters. Jelka is devoted to Delius, yet his years of promiscuity, artistic rages and refusal to compromise have left her bitter and scarred. Delius is thankful for Fenby’s help, yet spares him none of his fierce temper or pitiless opinions (Fenby’s Catholic faith is a bone of great contention between the two). Fenby is adoring of Delius’ music, but finds the man himself a overbearing, brutalising, tormented Jekyll-and-Hyde.

Written together by Russell and Eric Fenby from his memoirs Delius As I Knew Him, this is as refreshingly unsensationalised and clear-cut a biopic as you’re ever likely to see. As Ken Russell notes on the commentary track “There is only ever one angle for any scene,” and here he makes directing look effortless, handling everything with a wonderfully natural, unforced tone. Assisted immeasurably by the fine cameraman Dick Bush, the photography is unfussy yet truly glorious in black-and-white and is a reminder how beautiful the academy ratio is. All performances are uniformly outstanding (this was Christopher Gable’s debut film role), and all of these elements are tied together with charged, lilting and haunting extracts from the compositions of Delius, from The Walk to the Paradise Garden to A Song of Summer.

Russell himself admits it’s probably the best thing he’s ever done and I’m not about to disagree; his touch here is truly invisible, with dead-on pacing and a simple, elegiac quality, it’s a deeply moving and endlessly rewatchable story of sacrifice, artistic struggle and endurance, and certainly among the greatest pieces of television ever made.

The quality is fine for the most part – clear, crisp images that are perhaps a touch contrasty on occasion and the black levels could certainly be a little more solid. Print flaws are the main concern, including some darkened frames between cuts, occasional splice-marks and very occasional scatterings of dirt and debris, but for a 35-year-old 16mm production, it’s more than acceptable. The audio, although mono, comes through fine, with rich renditions of the score, little audible hiss and no snaps or crackles.

There is only one chief extra, but it’s utterly wonderful – any DVD aficionado knows what a superb commentator Ken Russell is, and here he’s firing on all cylinders. Providing reminiscences and anecdotes about the production, the cast and Eric Fenby, through to the origins of his directorial career, his love of music and his approach as a director, he is engaging, entertaining and inspiring. Also on the disc are some sleeve notes, a biography and picture of Ken Russell and a weblink.

One of the best British films ever made has thankfully been brought back into the public light with outstanding style by the British Film Institute, in their wonderful Archive Television line. A true neglected masterpiece that I cannot recommend highly enough.

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