25 April 2005 | FilmFlaneur
Not too mad about Mahler
Mahler has sometimes been cited as the finest of Russell's composer bio-pics, an informal series which began with several impressive works made for television at the beginning of the 1960s. As such it falls between the relative restraint of the black-and-white photographed Gordon Jacob (1959) and the uninspired late Mystery Of Dr Martinu (1993), another TV special that more or less finished the run. Elgar: Fantasy Of A Composer On A Bicycle (2002), a revisiting of Russell's celebrated early work (Elgar), seemed like a creative codicil. Like The Music Lovers (1970), which preceded it, and Lisztomania (1975), which followed, Mahler was made for the big screen. The larger budgets involved allowed Russell the narrative luxuries of greater length and a move to colour; but also to indulge a penchant for flamboyant fantasy, kitsch and nudity.
The film takes place mostly as a series of flashbacks, experienced by the ailing composer as he travels to take up a last appointment in Vienna, accompanied by his wife Alma (Georgina Hale). Portraying the composer is Robert Powell who, showing a close resemblance to the subject, arguably does a far more sympathetic job than Richard Chamberlain (Russell's Tchaikovsky) or Roger Daltrey (Liszt). His memories prompted by his imminent mortality, as well as Alma's libidinous interest in a handsome soldier also on the train, Mahler dwells on several key episodes of his life, such as his early musical education, his conversion to Catholicism and a humiliating job interview for the Vienna Opera. Thus while the fatigue wracked composer's train journey is experienced as reality, his feverish recollection of a creative past is often hallucinatory and surreal - moments at which Russell's colourful staging of events is foremost.
Just how one takes the resultant mix of high culture and low camp is a matter of personal taste. "Why is everyone so literal these days?" complains Russell's disillusioned composer at one point. It is worth bearing this view in mind, as well as Mahler's later opinion that it is sometimes necessary to "see with the eyes of children... and hear with the ears of children." Literal or not, Mahler is definitely not for children, including as it does Nazis, naked cavorting, and some cod nightmare imagery in one characteristically overheated package. For this viewer, seeing the film again for the first time since the original release, the result is the same: I was entertained, if ultimately unmoved, by a work which may show the audience the way Russell sees his Mahler - but is far less convincing as to how *Mahler* saw his world. At the end of the day Russell's more extravagant stagings become a distraction rather than a revelation, the composer's creative neuroses coarsened by the director's very personal, baroque vision.
This 'problem' with Mahler is the same as with several of Russell's more ambitious films. The director's heavy handed use of not-especially-shocking imagery - in fact one doubts now whether, in most cases, it ever really was very alarming, more just in bad taste - usually done quickly and on a budget, drives home matters with a sledgehammer. On those occasions where Russell's approach has proved most successful, such as in The Devils (1971), disturbing imagery coincides most closely with the subject (religious hysteria and the inquisition) a reinforcement that benefits further from first-rate art direction (by Derek Jarman). In Mahler, to take a glaring example, the intrusion of black-uniformed Nazis into the composer's nightmare of premature burial - a sequence that culminates in a semi-nude Alma squatting over his death mask, is both crass and irrelevant. Similar doubts attend the conversion to Catholicism film within a film, featuring some laboured silent comedy - Powell as Mahler even does a Stan Laurel 'cry' at one point - including setups which perhaps inspired Tim the Enchanter's appearance in Monty Python And The Holy Grail, in cinemas a year later. The parodic intrusion of the Third Reich into a film about a composer might have made sense if the subject had been the notably anti-Semitic and pompous Wagner. Supporting an account of the insecure, frequently humiliated, Jewish, Mahler, its heavy handed and inappropriate nature is ultimately toe curling.
Fortunately, and even with all these shortcomings, Russell's film is rarely boring. Buoyed up with of large chunks of music, Mahler's sequence of colourful events moves along easily enough. Shot mostly on location in Russell's beloved Lake District, a lot of the film makes a fair pass of recreating Austria in the first decade of the last century. The most affecting moments for this viewer remain the quieter ones - Mahler alone in his summer house, conducting one of his great orchestral canvases in his head, or the quiet interlude with the doctor who confesses to being tone deaf and, ironically, is someone the composer feels he can trust most easily. Russell's recreation of Mahler's childhood is also interesting, as the young composer meets a puckish man in the woods (Ronald Pickup) who offers his timely advice that "The man who doesn't live in nature can't write a true note of music." This sequence is one of the few times that performances are allowed to grow for, squeezed between Russell's set pieces and Mahler's mammoth orchestrations, actors sometimes appear hard pressed to make an impression with quieter moments of dialogue. Perhaps Powell and Hale come off best as a couple towards the end of the film, as the composer delicately explains her role in his inspiration. It's a sensitive moment, bringing a note of intimacy often lacking elsewhere. In short this is a Mahler which is deeply flawed, if rarely dull, which at least is to Russell's credit and persistence as a maverick film maker.