Ken Russell was one of Britain’s few cinematic renegades but Valentino is a film he publicly said he rather forget. It’s based loosely on a biography on the silent film star Rudolph Valentino who is played here by the Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev. Valentino was Russell’s first foray into Hollywood filmmaking after the cult success of Tommy and to a lesser extent of Lisztomania. It’s critical and financial failure would prevent Russell from directing till he made the leaner and more controlled Altered States in 1980.
The film is told through flashbacks, it starts with the funeral of Valentino which is still to this date considered one of the most attended funerals of any celebrity in Hollywood history. Valentino’s death also caused some fans to commit suicide and there were riots on the streets. The film traces his live through female lovers and alludes to the possibility of his homosexuality which has been hotly debated for decades. It’s totally indulgent to the extreme which is a trademark of Ken Russell, he is often considered the “British Fellini” which is a far comparison. When he filmmaking dried up he turned to directing Opera which was a logical medium for Russell to move into so he could indulge in his theatricality.
The film is told through high camp which is Russell’s early films such as The Devils and Tommytoyed with. Valentino suffers from being overly extravagant with its sets and costumes because it lacks the talent of a Derek Jarman to help Russell design his sets as he did in The Devils. The performances were the most part are over the top but not in a way which makes it endearing, Nureyev looked the part but his acting ability leaves a lot to be desired. Seymour Cassel brings some needed acting ability in his supporting role as George Ullman but he can’t save the film.
Ken Russell’s films are always interesting and beautifully staged but his best films The Devils, Tommy or Altered States he is restrained just enough to be satisfying as a whole. Valentino is one of the films where his indulgence got the better of him and even he realised that himself. BFI’s disc is impressive however with a new commentary with film historian Tim Lucas. Ken Russell’s audio Guardian Lecture from 1988 serves as an alternative commentary track. Frequent supporting player in Russell’s Dudley Sutton gives a recent interview on the film and Russell. Nureyev is interviewed in a vintage piece and there is even a newsreel of the real funeral of Valentino amongst many other features.