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Friday, 5 February 2016

Savage Messiah (1972)

The above movie from maverick director Ken Russell is unlikely to be confused with the Canadian one of the same title from 2002 about a weird cult, even if the earlier one has faded into some obscurity. Russell himself considered it one of his best and the one for which he wished to be remembered. However his other 70s biopics of Tchaikowky, Lizst, and Mahler remain more available than this stylish and probably fanciful record of the short life of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.

Played with fire and passion by Scott Anthony (the 'who-he' question is dealt with below), it deals with his obsession for and romance with the Polish would-be writer Sophie Brzeska. She was 20 years his senior and his inspirational spark, even if their relationship was apparently unconsummated. They lived as man and wife, but never did marry, only agreeing early on to exchange surnames as a symbol of their love. Played with impish charm by Dorothy Tutin, who had a long career from her debut role as the ing√©nue in 1950's classic "The Importance of Being Earnest" through her death in 2001, the impetuous Sophie is the sounding block for Henri's outlandish theories on life and art and the muse behind his rough-hewn sculptures.

Foremost in the supporting cast is a young Helen Mirren, not in a debut role as often claimed, playing a suffragette and/or supporter of any fashionable cause, and unashamedly flaunting her ripe, full-frontal nudity, as Henri's occasional model and lover. Also notable in the cast is Lindsay Kemp, the choreographer, as Gaudier's agent and John Justin again (see Schalcken below) as an effete gallery owner. With set design by Derek Jarman and a very literate script from Christopher Logue, the movie is less bizarre than some of Russell's other cinematic flights of fancy, but is blessed with a rich evocation of Paris and London immediately before World War I and an insight into the tortured mind of a struggling but gifted artist. 

Vowing to continue with his dreams of success, Gaudier resisted joining up until Paris was occupied and then cheerfully went off to war. One of the final scenes depicts Kemp reading a letter from the front to a group of effete officers who are sitting out the war in comfort. When some of Henri's unconventional opinions are aired, one of them says 'People like that should be shot'. Kemp rejoins 'He was....last Thursday'! Gaudier died in 1915 at the age of 23. The film ends with a silent but impressive display of some of his best works at the exhibition he never lived to see.

I am not alone in wondering whatever became of Anthony who gives such a memorable performance here. It is the first of only three screen credits; this film was followed by a 1973  BBC television series "Cheri" and the lead in Tony Richardson's 1974 flick "Dead Cert" based on a Dick Francis racing novel. None of these outings were particularly successful at the time nor caught the public's fancy, and Anthony left the limelight for charitable projects connected with the arts. He is still a member of Equity and can be found on Facebook. His most recent projects are photo-travelogues and short 'poem films', but even Russell shortly before his death claimed to have no idea what had become of his charismatic leading man.
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