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UK 1970
Directed by
Ken Russell
122 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

The Music Lovers

Ken Russell's penchant for excess regularly led his films into self-parodic territory and his imaginative recreation of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s life and music is no exception. If the first aspect is a broad account I don’t know how those familiar with Tchaikovsky’s music will take Russell’s interpretation of it. Clearly the sexual torments on display spring more from the director’s imagination and perhaps that of screenwriter Melvin Bragg than the composer’s (Although they may not be that wide of the mark. Apparently 9 weeks into his marriage Tchaikovsky threw himself an icy river in order to contract tuberculosis, an incident which oddly enough Russell does not portray). 

Richard Chamberlain plays Tchaikovsky who, when we first see him, is just starting to make a name for himself as a composer.  But his relationship with the avowed homosexual Count Anton Chiluvsky (Christopher Gable) is starting tongues to wag and his brother, Modeste (Kenneth Colley), persuades him to get married. So what does he do?  He marries an overwrought sex-pot, Antonina Milyukova (Glenda Jackson), but one of the women including his dead mother, sister-in-law, Sasha (Sabina Maydelle), and patroness Madame Nadedja von Meck (Izabella Telezynska) who variously sustain and/or distress his troubled emotional world.

The staging’s the thing with Russell and whilst some of it is laughably awful, notably a slo-mo of  Tchaikovsky and his sister gamboling through a wood, particularly in the film’s latter reaches when we arrive at the 1812 Overture there’s a delirious quality that’s quite effective even if it bears little-to-no resemblance to any factual truth. Chamberlain, although his keyboard work is very good, makes for an unconvincing Tchaikovsky, much as Jackson is an unlikely Russian mademoiselle.  Indeed the whole production has, unsurprisingly, a very English sensibility.

As ever with Russell there’s gratuitous nudity (largely thanks to Jackson) and Boschean nightmares but balancing things out on the quality side, André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra perform Tchaikovsky's music and the cinematography is by British veteran, Douglas Slocombe. 




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