Ken Russell's (per)version of Tchaikovsky's life kicks off with a blur of Russian partying, with the composer (wan Richard Chamberlain) hopping from soiree to soiree while the frenzied footwork suggests a lampoon of Pasternak -- which would at least be less pernicious than Russell's lampoon of Lawrence in Women in Love. Alas, the picture all too readily settles for the prototype of Russell's anguished-artist aberrations, with the crassness of his formative BBC biopics magnified into gargantuan flailing. Trying to cover his own homosexuality, Tchaikovsky aims for platonic respectability by marrying the fan he knows only through ardent letters, not knowing that his new bride Nina (Glenda Jackson) is a card-carrying nympho who morphs from pliant lady to seething virago in the course of one frazzled train car ride. It's but a small step from the failure to fuck to madness, and not the sweetest music in the world can keep Nina from doing pirouettes at the asylum patio while syphillic slobberers grope up her skirt from bellow, or Tchaikovsky, covered in choleric sores, from following in mommy's steps, dragged to a scalding finish. Russell insists on ornate, 19th-century décor, all the better to implode it with the bristling sledgehammer of "passion," yet few filmmakers have proved less sensitive to music, or less suited to illustrate the cinema's ability to transform the medium's power into images. Sexual and artistic impulses flow freely, but Russell's notions of beauty (swans, wheat fields, beaming close-ups) are shallow, since the deepest emotions music stirs in him are of complacent decay that challenges nothing but one's patience. In that sense, the film's dubious locus classicus is the ejaculatory visualization of the "1812 Overture," swirling ribbons, tolling bells, ecstatic grimacing and decapitating cannon fire filtering Tchaikovsky's thunder, via André Previn, into toxic kitsch. Melvyn Bragg adapted Catherine Drinker Bowen's book Beloved Friend. Cinematography by Douglas Slocombe. With Max Adrian, Christopher Gable, Kenneth Colley, and Isabella Telezynska.
--- Fernando F. Croce