Certain events in history seem to defy novelists’ and moviemakers’ attempts to dramatize them. One such event is the fateful evening when Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin (soon to be Mary Shelley), Mary’s half-sister Claire Clairmont, and Byron’s physician Dr. John Polidori came up with ideas for supernatural stories, the most famous of which would be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Such a combination of literary personalities, many of whom where quite controversial in their day, would seem ready for a literary or cinematic adaptation. But it hasn’t turned out that way (I recently put aside the novel Passion, by Jude Morgan, which chronicled Mary Godwin and other women related to the Romantic poets – it just didn’t sustain my interest).
Certainly the most gaudy if not the most well-known movie to portray the Byron-Shelley-Godwin-Clairmont-Polidori shindig, Gothic is a typical Ken Russell interesting failure, rife with overacting, historical liberties, and perverse sexual and religious imagery. Like most Russell movies, it’s not good in the strictest sense, but it’s seldom dull and at times give hints of a much better, more serious movie.
Lord Byron, the rock star of poets, is in exile at his mansion in Switzerland; he’s accompanied by his physician (read: sycophant and all-around whipping boy) Dr. John Polidori. Joining Byron for the night are fellow poet Percy Shelley, Shelley’s mistress (he’s married to another woman) Mary Godwin, and Mary’s half-sister Claire who is Byron’s lover. No sooner are all the parties in the door then shenanigans begin: playing hide-and-seek, shagging, quaffing vast amounts of laudanum, and generally acting like overgrown children (the long-suffering expressions of Byron’s servants are a particularly nice touch) in a house that contains robotic belly dancers, goats, and jars full of leeches. Things settle down a bit when they take turns reading a book of ghost stories, and this scene is the first sign of a better movie lurking within: as Mary and Claire read, we see them participating in the story not just as narrators but as characters, each projecting their fears into the story.
The party then holds a séance and things start to get very bizarre, as the characters then stumble around the house encountering their personal demons, having arguments, and in the film’s best sequence, getting a glimpse into the future, which holds tragedy for all of them. By the next morning, fate is set in motion and Mary Godwin-Shelley will have the inspiration for Frankenstein.
The main problem with Gothic is that it takes fascinating, tragic figures from history and turns them into insufferable twats. Blame goes to screenwriter Stephen Volk, who thinks poets spend all their time goofing around like overgrown toddlers while spewing faux-philosophical dialogue that would make even the most pretentious undergrad wince. The actors don’t help. Gabriel Byrne as Byron alternates between chewing the scenery and letting his dark, surly good looks do the acting for him. Julian Sands as Shelley is a disgrace to his profession, an over-the-top performance even by Ken Russell’s standards. Miriam Cyr plays Claire as a woman who seems to revel in the physical and emotional abuse her lover bestows on her, so it’s difficult to feel much sympathy for her.
Coming off better are Natasha Richardson as Mary and Timothy Spall as Polidori. It helps that they are the outsiders in the group, unable to join fully in the infantile revelry. (Mary is still mourning her prematurely born baby and lives in fear that her living child will perish. Polidori is guilt-ridden to the point of self-mutilation and suicide by the conflict between his Catholic faith and his homosexuality.) These characters’ conflicts and sorrows are understandable and help gain the audience’s sympathy, whereas Shelley’s ravings come off as the babble of a nitwit who’s had too much laudanum, and Byron seems like a sociopath.
Gothic isn’t a scary movie per se, though there’s a nice jump scene when Mary has a dream that mirrors the famous painting Nightmare by Henry Fuseli. The movie’s most affecting moment is not one of fear but one of sorrow, as Mary sees the future and realizes that it holds little but madness, grief, and death for all the parties (Russell holds true to history in this scene). This leads to a perhaps unintentionally chilling scene of the morning after, when the revelers enjoy the peaceful day unaware of what the future holds. It’s in these scenes that the film has its power, not in the poetical ravings or ooga-booga opium fantasies.
The DVD has no extras and possibly one of the worst transfers I’ve ever seen (and my standards in these matters are not high), plus a full-frame matting. Russell fans would be advised to seek out the UK disc, which has a phenomenally better transfer as well as some extra features.