This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.
A group of “proper” ladies queue up on the side of a lake. Each one awaiting a turn to peek through a telescope aimed at a distant window. The hope is to catch a glimpse of the mysterious and alluring Lord Byron.
Gothic takes place during an infamous summer. Where Percy Bysshe Shelley (Julian Sands), Mary Shelley – at this time known as Mary Godwin (Natasha Richardson), Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr), Mary's step-sister and Byron's long term lover, and Dr Polidori (Timothy Spall), his biographer and physician, join Byron (Gabriel Byrne) in a mansion on the banks of Lake Geneva for a long summer of free love, drug taking and storytelling. Ultimately prompting Mary Shelley to create her masterpiece, ‘Frankenstein'.
Though this story takes place over one night, the suggestion is that this is how they lived for a cycle of time, alternating between days of picnics and propriety and debaucherous nights. A lifestyle not unfamiliar to stories of rock stars, which is really how Byron was seen at the time. Albeit from a safe, telescopic distance.
Byrne's Byron is a mix of sexuality and the grotesque. Clearly having little respect for the bodies he uses and the “friends” he spends time with, and showing the signs of his iniquity with a syphilis induced limp that reminds at times of Laurence Olivier's Richard the Third. Polidori's obsession with him is perfectly demonstrated by the sneering creepiness that only Spall is capable of, his infatuation with Byron and his mental fragility luring him into a lonely spiral as the night progresses.
Percy is a willing but earnest participant, encouraging the reluctant and shy Mary to loosen up and engage in the group's lurid frivolity. Ken Russell's iconic direction moves from the romantic to the psychedelic, as they are all slowly sinking into what feels like an endless night of distorted visions and awakened conflicts.
Beneath their experimentations there lives a constant thread of trauma. The Shelley's make reference to their lost child, and Mary's deceased mother. Something that seems to hang over her and influence her writing in particular. Despite her youthful appearance there is a darkness to her that we are now all too familiar with. All she wants is to bring them back, an impossible fantasy that she of course focused into her writing.
The new Blu-ray release of this classic film contains new interviews with those responsible for making the film, in particular the writer Stephen Volk, who seems to have an uncanny knowledge of these people, their history and their stories. Watching Gothic and then Frankenstein (the Branagh version in particular) makes for a gripping double bill with each film emphasising the strength of the other. There is no Frankenstein without this story, and this story is so weaved into the events of her famous novel.
Gothic takes us on a heady dive into what it takes to create a masterpiece. As fact and fiction weave together, the audience takes the position of voyeur, looking through a window at rock stars.
- Presented in High Definition
- Feature commentary by film historian Matthew Melia and Lisi Russell (2018)
- The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2002, 83 mins): Ken Russell returns to gothic themes in this legendarily lurid late video work starring both the director and his wife, Lisi Russell
- A Haunted Evening (2023, 35 mins): Stephen Volk, the writer of Gothic, revisits his earliest feature script
- The Sound of Shelley with Julian Sands (2017, 18 mins): the actor reflects upon the making of Gothic
- Amelia and the Angel (1958, 27 mins): in this charming early Russell short, a young girl, cast as an angel in the school play, is distraught when her brother damages her treasured wings. Pocket money in hand, Amelia traverses London on the hunt for a new pair in time for the play
- The Guardian Lecture: Ken Russell in conversation with Derek Malcolm (1987, 88 mins, audio only): the director reflects upon his career, at the time of Gothic
- Original trailer
- **FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Illustrated booklet featuring new essays by Ellen Cheshire, Jon Dear, and Matthew Melia and full film credits
- First pressing limited to 3,000 copies
Gothic is released on BFI Blu-ray on September 18th