The Devils Review

The Film

It's a basic tactic in politics that if you can't beat your opponent's argument you beat them. By pointing out another's real human failings, or even their imagined or perceived ones, you can distract the public's attention for long enough to get away with being plain wrong yourself. Say you're sending the economy and the national health service down the tubes, then if you can make everyone think about how funny looking the other bloke is you might just pull it off.imageNowhere is this facet of hypocrisy more apparent than in discussions about conscience, faith or "character" as we call it these days. It speaks to mad rightwingers that Mitt Romney can speak French badly, we all stop listening to the wealthy ceremonial Archbishops who tell us to care about the poor, and, just, why would we trust our future leadership to an adenoidal nerd who stabbed his brother in the back. Ken Russell's The Devil's proves that this tactic has long worked well for the darker forces in our political lives.

Set in 17th century France, The Devils is about the power struggle between Church and State, and the destruction of one imperfect but eventually decent man needed to ensure the victory of the powerful. In the fortified city of Loudun, Father Grandier stands in the way of the dominion of Richelieu and he is targeted and martyred as a result. Cue a show trial and the truly mendacious exploitation of lies, human weaknesses and powerlessness.imageRussell's best film stands apart from an enjoyable career of whimsy, kitsch and regular bad taste. This is because it is passionate, committed to exploring the evil that those seeking worldly power will commit. In the persons of Father Barre, charlatan and "witch hunter", and the ruthless Baron, Richelieu's henchman, it's hard not to be reminded of the likes of Matthew Hopkins in Reeve's Witchfinder General or even Malcolm Tucker in Iannucci's satires.

Raised against these evil men and the powerless nuns and public they persecute, is Oliver Reed's vain Father Grandier. Introduced sowing the seeds of his own destruction through his treatment of a mistress, he is a "bad man" who becomes better - more principled, more faithful and more humble through his literal and figurative trials. Reed is majestic, part sex symbol part hero, a raffish figure who becomes more decent as his persecutors plumb worse depths.imageThis intense and powerful central examination of political struggle is contained within superb sets designed by Derek Jarman and counterpointed by a truly striking score from Peter Maxwell Davies. The thrust and sincerity of The Devils are undoubtable, no moments of irony or Russell irreverence undermine a furious condemnation of the exploitation of hysteria and petty revenge.

Few more poetic or passionate films exist within British cinema, and even presented in this compromised X-rated cut The Devils corrects anyone who doubted Ken Russell's abilities. Here he uses familiar faces and new collaborators expertly to create a masterwork that deserves a place in British cinematic history much as The Crucible has in the theatre. Heartbreaking, repellent and unremittingly direct, The Devils is rightly rediscovered as a masterpiece.

Technical Specs

The BFI have chosen to release The Devils as a two disc DVD package containing a 42 page booklet. Both discs are region two encoded, and the first of them, a dual layer disc, contains the main feature. The film itself is presented in the X-rated cut which was used in the UK for the theatrical release, meaning that the longer version of the orgy sequence, the "Rape of Christ", and other more censor baiting moments are absent in this version. imageThe excellent news is that this is a magnificent transfer on a par with the best of Criterion or Mondo Vision releases. There is very minor wear and tear like small hairs but the image is superbly film-like throughout with natural edges, excellent grading in the contrast and a beautfiul balance in the colouring. The sound is similarly brilliant, recorded at wapping bitrates with superb fidelity, clarity and definition that brings alive the Maxwell Davies score and enables the vocal elements of the performances to live like never before.


The 42 page booklet is nicely published with shots from the film and drawings included amongst the essays. Mark Kermode, who deserves great credit for rehabilitating this films reputation, writes about the film, its sources and the shoot, Craig Lapper covers the censorship issues and the extrordinary communication between John Trevelyan and Russell, and Sam Ashby uncovers Derek Jarman's conversion to cinema through his work on this film. Biographies and credits complete the booklet.

On the first disc, the short American trailer is included along with the UK trailer in fine fettle indeed. Russell's short film Amelia and the Angel is presented, and the main extra feature is a commentary featuring Kermode, editor Michael Bradsell, Paul Joyce and Russell himself. Russell is not obsessed with commanding attention and often defers to Bradsell whilst Kermode tries to knit the contributions together with his wealth of knowledge. It's a very good entertaining companion to the film. Kermode has also filmed a new short introduction to the main feature which is optional.

The second disc includes the Channel 4 documentary Hell on Earth, featuring Kermode bringing together Russell, Bradsell and cast members to watch the re-found excised footage, and exploring the film in some depth with Russell alone. The dreadful Alexander Walker pops up - so be warned. A Warner's documentary with Russell interviewed as the film is made and released is next up which shows a fired up director getting very hands on with Maxwell Davies' recording the score.

Personal 8mm footage of behind the scenes footage is presented with narration from Michael Bradsell affectionately recalling the film. The final filmed extra is a Q&A from 2004 with Russell and Kermode.


There are only two real criticisms with this package - the lack of a HD release and the choice of x-rated cut over Russell's preferred version. Not knowing whether the cut scenes were available or able to be re-integrated, or why a Blu-ray release hasn't been sanctioned I believe we should all thank our lucky stars that such a fine release has come our way in standard definition.

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