The outrageous British director Ken Russell spent most of the ’70s making biopics, some comparatively restrained and some unapologetically insane. Savage Messiah, about the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, falls somewhere in between these extremes. Adapted by Christopher Logue from a book by H.S. Ede, the movie charts the artist’s short but intense life, illustrating how he railed against mainstream culture before dying at the age of 23. Although the movie is set in the early 20th century, it’s clearly meant to parallel the counterculture attitudes of the early ’70s, as seen in episodes of civil disobedience and—thanks to fearless costar Helen Mirren—a lengthy scene of full-frontal nudity.
As with most of Russell’s films, Savage Messiah is made with more craftsmanship than discipline, because very often, scenes that are acted and filmed skillfully serve dubious narrative purposes. And, as was true throughout his career, Russell never knows when to quit, so instead of one or two sequences featuring the lead character giving insufferably self-aggrandizing speeches about the importance of pushing artistic boundaries, the movie has seemingly dozens of such scenes. While Savage Messiah doesn’t give viewers a pounding headache the way that some of Russell’s phantasmagorias do—the bizarre composer biopic Lisztomania (1975) comes to mind—it nonetheless suffers for its excesses.
Set in London, Savage Messiah revolves around the complex relationship between Henri (Scott Anthony) and the Polish writer Sopie Brzeska (Dorthy Tutin). Both headstrong and idealistic, they meet while positioned on opposite ends of the existential spectrum—he’s bursting with excitement based upon his artistic potential, whereas she is suicidal. Henri wows Sophie by making a scene in a public garden, drawing a crowd while splashing in a fountain and screaming slogans: “Art is dirt! Art is sex! Art is revolution!” Eventually, the two form a platonic bond while Henri uses questionable means to acquire art supplies and simutaneously battles with gallery owners, building a reputation as a mad genius. For a while, the arrangement works, but then Henri meets willful suffragette Gosh Boyle (Mirren), who shares his lack of inhibitions. Henri’s relationship with Gosh creates distance between Henri and Sophie, even though Sophie pays for Henri’s room and board.
Given all this domestic tumult, Russell ends up portraying his central character a bit like a rock star—part romantic visionary, part self-centered hedonist. During Savage Messiah’s most obnoxious scenes, Henri storms into public spaces, including a museum and a theater, and makes noisy spectacles by causing property damage and/or hurling insults at strangers. One gets the sense that he’s on about something he considers important, but it’s hard to endure his overbearing behavior and even harder to parse his jumbled rhetoric. Still, Russell puts across the counterculture parallels effectively, and he does an expert job of using cues from the classical-music canon to score the piece. The performances are all strong, with Tutin the standout, and Mirren somehow manages to make nudity seem dignified during her show-stopping scene. Savage Messiah trumpets its messages loudly and proudly, even if the actual content of those messages remains elusive.
Savage Messiah: FUNKY