Ken Russell had never been stranger to controversy, he revelled in catching critics and audience off guard. He confounded critics yet again during the peak of his notoriety by making one of his most restrained and poetic of films. Whether or not we are a fan, Ken Russell’s “Mahler” – a commentary on Austrian composer Gustav Mahler’s life and work, will be seen by many as one of the most imaginative biographies attempted in film.
The first time I even heard of Mahler was through an earlier Visconti classic, “Morte a Venezia” – my ignorance in classical music was deep. “Mahler” went some way in igniting my interest in a music that I hitherto considered bourgeois, thanks largely due to Russell’s interpretation. The film however is not just about Gustav Mahler, but also his wife Alma, whose inherent talent was overshadowed by her husband’s. The film narrates most of Mahler’s life through his reminiscences during a train journey with his wife back to Vienna. His torments and nightmares are shown as a consequence to his single-mindedness, insecurities, jealousy, and guilt.
To say the film is exquisitely made is an understatement. Possibly inspired by the exquisite art direction in the aforementioned Visconti film, Russell goes further by recreating various periods during Mahler’s lifetime in meticulous detail. His creative choice of symphonies for passes of play is a result of a deep understanding of the composer and his music. Just as well – if a man knows his composers, it’s got to be Ken Russell – he’d already been making films about them for a good many years. The cinematography and particularly the editing couldn’t possibly be bettered. The impeccable casting of and performances by Robert Powell and Georgina Hale as Gustav and Alma Mahler respectively are quite impressive and totally engaging – Ms. Hale also won a BAFTA for her efforts. In summary, this is a well-conceived story, beautifully filmed and presented by a gifted director with an image problem. This may not be Ken’s finest work (for me it will always be “The Devils”), but is nevertheless a movingly soulful and analytical work from the British master, and therefore Highly Recommended Viewing..!
The film subject’s severity is toned down in places through some outrageously comical sequences, like during Mahler’s conversion to Catholicism, and my favourite – Mahler having a nightmare of being cremated alive while Alma, still in mourning robes, flirts with would-be suitors. A snippet from the scene:
Nudity Summary: Georgina Hale and David Collings
The film features some nudity from Georgina Hale who plays Alma Mahler in scenes imagined by her character’s husband. There is also a brief nude appearance by David Collings who plays the mentally unstable composer Hugo Wolf.