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United Kingdom 1974
Directed by
Ken Russell
115 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars


It is tempting with Mahler to say that Russell is like a talented musician trying to play a rather badly written piece of music, however since Russell is also the composer and conductor, the analogy does not wash. Thus, although there are moments to savour, little about this Gustav Mahler biopic works. Partly this is because Russell’s characteristic penchant for histrionic theatricality does not suit either his subject or the biopic genre and partly because the film’s evidently limited budget means that those theatrics are not particularly well realized and as a result come across as unduly trashy.

A more general problem is that there is no real sense of Mahler’s world of 1900s Austria. From the opening scene of Mahler’s lake-house bursting into flames, the whole thing looks makeshift. The leads, Robert Powell as the composer and Georgina Hale as his long-suffering wife (in real life also a composer), are quintessentially English performers and Russell quite often endows them with modern mannerisms and dialogue. There may not be anything inherently wrong with this except for the fact than none of it is particularly compelling and the general sense of Mahler’s neurotic self-importance wears thin. This is also not necessarily untrue (Russell quotes Visconti's Death in Venice, 1971, a film which also portrayed Mahler/von Aschenbach as a petulant egotist) but it means Mahler is not a character with whom we particularly want to spend time. Overall, however, the film is simply unengaging and leaves one wishing for a more substantial account of the composer.




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