Elgar: Portrait of a Composer

Elgar: Portrait of a Composer ★★★★½

"The times are cruel and gloomy...no soul, no romance, and no imagination."

It's difficult to imagine any other director taking this assignment from BBC's Monitor and going as hard as Russell does on Elgar's utter disillusionment with his country, his god, and life in general. And yet Russell is clearly inspired by Elgar's life and music, which he serves with delirious camerawork and some powerful, offbeat juxtapositions - such gestures are commonplace now (James Gunn uses them like he invented them), but sixty years ago Russell was showing everyone how to do it.

I'm pleasantly surprised that this thing was a popular success and rerun multiple times by the BBC - I have to believe that a large segment of Monitor's audience felt absolutely nutkicked by it - but am completely unsurprised that it kicked open a lot of doors for Russell, and served as a calling card for his considerable vision and talent. Today it still moves and engages, and one is barely distracted by thoughts of how radical this must have felt 60 years ago.

In this moment, it was the perfect segue, across midnight, from Ken Russell's 95th birthday into the most shrouded and ambiguous July 4th of my lifetime. I fully understand Elgar's despondency in the face of all of the changes his country underwent, and the cruelty with which his music was appropriated to serve a jingoistic anti-human agenda. The honesty with which Russell undertakes this project breathes new life into the work of a composer long seen as a stodgy relic of a bygone era in his home country, and is also so blisteringly angry it seems to anticipate the rise of punk in the following decade. It retains a clear-eyed sincerity from start to finish, and even sixty years later leaves one feeling weirdly inspired and hopeful after taking it in.

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