Mahler: A film by Ken Russell

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Mahler: A film by Ken Russell
LABELS: Freemantle Media
PERFORMER: Robert Powell, Georgina Hale, Lee Montague, etc


I enjoyed this, one of Ken Russell’s more lurid bio-pics when it first came out (the director is cited as saying it’s ‘the best film I have ever made about an artist’); and it’s weathered well over 30 years, not least because of Robert Powell’s strong performance as Mahler.

Some admirers of the composer will still be offended, not least because the music is chopped up to match the mood of each scene. Then there are Russell’s wilder fancies: Mahler converted to Catholicism, so why not have Cosima Wagner (!) as a goose-stepping Nazi dominatrix, forcing him to forge a sword out of a star of David, in a spoof silent film sequence with nods to Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel and Al Jolson?


Some fantasies are gentler: as Alma rushes around the countryside, silencing church bells, pub bands and cowbells, we see Mahler writing those very sounds into his music. And the scenes of the young Mahler and his dysfunctional family would not disgrace any conventional biopic. Each sequence is remembered or imagined by Mahler or Alma as they make their final train journey to Vienna in 1911, and Russell takes kernels of truth – Hugo Wolf’s insanity; the death of Mahler’s daughter – and embroiders them as his fancy takes him. But his love of his subject always shines through, and all said it’s far better to have outrageous imagination than respectful greyness. Martin Cotton