Amelia and the Angel (1958) is Ken Russell’s first significant amateur short, it followed on from his unfinished Knights on a Bike and the humorous Peep Show featuring the Bogus Beggar’s Academy in training. Russell was thirty when he made Amelia. Then a struggling photographer, he always wanted to get into the film industry – his photography tended towards photo sequences, he hungered for the narrative from the outset – and this idea for a film hit upon him. He had no money to speak of, and made it for around three hundred pounds ( the British Film Institute loaned him one hundred and fifty pounds).
As is of course well known the film piqued the curiosity of BBC executive Huw Prys Wheldon. Wheldon had not seen anything like the film before and was intrigued by Russell, he offered him a job on the BBC’s Monitor program. Later Wheldon would have to stand firm to contain Russell’s desire to fictionalise the lives of Monitor subjects, and his tendencies towards the surreal and unconventional. This yearning is allowed some expression in Pop Goes the Easel (62), Russell’s Monitor film on pop art.
Amelia is a simple though multi layered tale of a little girl who has done the wrong thing and is made to feel the consequences of unexpected outcomes – after which she is compelled to undertake a form of penance in a tiring, frustrating and disheartening search to make things right. This may easily be seen as a universal theme which is played out endlessly every day in our microscopic human drama here on planet earth. I got it wrong…how do I make amends and get back what is lost? She is driven by a familiar fear, that of retribution, especially the disapproval of her dance teacher who has told all the young ballerinas that they are not to take their wings out of the dance room as there are none to be had “anywhere this side of heaven”.
However Amelia is not just afraid of her teacher, she makes entreaty to a higher power and looks with foreboding at the stern pictures of saints on her wall.
She knew it was wrong and she had been wilful. Through recognition and doing penance for her misdeed and making confession, the artist’s model and the artist (seeminly representative of a benevolent saviour) appear to confer and agree that she can be pardoned.
In deliverance she receives her prize which fills her with a great joy – the joy of relief, gratitude, a great weight lifted from her shoulders and new resolve (this is what Catholics feel after Confession and receiving Absolution – and this is about the time Russell converted to Catholicism) which the film’s wonderful closing scenes of Amelia running towards her future encapsulate.
As is easily recognised the film embodies many of Russell’s later recurring “tics” – dance, costume, religious allegory, magical fantasy, surreal flourishes, statues, heaven, angels and wings. The film has many imaginative touches. I love the opening rehearsal scenes (Russell for a time studied dance) and the little angels running, (this imagery can be seen enlarged upon in the delightful Elgar: Fantasy of a Composer on a Bicycle 2002 when a much larger group of angels or fairies in blue run around a tree in the forest), the butterfly/dragonfly wallpaper which I adore and want for my own walls,
…the spooky encounter with a seemingly at first floating costume on the stairs, that most intriguing black and white curtain which seems to be a veil between the outside world and Amelia’s inner sanctum as it leads to her bedroom but the garden is in the background.
The film is narrated by Russell (who I fancy sounds quite like Colin Firth) and is funny in places, for example when referring to Amelia’s distaste for the “nasty little beetle wings” (to the backdrop of an adorably ungainly dance the stallholder breaks into as if the wings once attached act as a switch to start her up), poor Rocky the Wonder Dog’s “most despised trick, the somersaulting angel”, and Amelia’s wish “if only Rocky had been a Great Dane”.
Russell makes a cameo appearance, he is the young man Amelia runs into in the street when she drops her money. I find it quite emotional to see him in that scene, I don’t know why, just because he is so young I guess and there is so much to come…and now he is gone. It feels like a very poignant moment in life’s passing parade to me.
I was also excited to see this bus with one of my favourite films advertised on the side! (The Admirable Crichton)
Amelia is expressively played (without speech, the soundtrack consists only of library music the narration) by Mercedes Quadros the nine year old daughter of an Argentinian diplomat. She was recommended to Russell by a friend, he was enchanted by her upon meeting and entreated her father to let her play the part. He also found her to be a delight to work with, obliging, spirited and easily pleased by hair raising rides about in his Morris 8.
As I said on the Voting Secrets thread I am writing a novel set in the 50’s. My (clandestine, of course) lovers steal into a film at the Film Festival on the Sydney University Campus in 1959. I wrote away for the program to see what was showing for authenticity and chose this film as the one they would see as its description suited my heroine perfectly and is exactly what she would have loved…then of course I had to access and see it for myself.
I find every frame of Amelia utterly engaging, and it is not just a half hour historic curiosity for cinephiles, it is more than that being possessed wholly of its own delightful little soul and charm giving it a standalone raison d’être.
Sadly Ken Russell fell under a bit of a cloud in his later years with the spewing forth of the ghastly The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2002) and other oddities, then going on Big Brother didn’t help. During the 90’s he made Crimes of Passion and Whore which earned him the badge of misogynist – his purpose in making these films was he said to rip apart the loathsome false Hollywood portrayal of prostitution in such films as Pretty Woman which sounds good enough reason to me.
No matter what Russell committed to screen I always sensed about him an innocence, I always trusted his heart and good intent. He was surely possessed of one of the most contradictory voices in cinema history, able to turn his hand to everything from the sublimely romantic to the harsh, the cruel and violent, the satirical (his strongest voice) the campy, the ludicrous, the poignant. He had a propensity towards life as carnival, he was a master of imagery, held dear the aesthetically beautiful and had an extraordinary eye for composition and he loved to linger on the human face as do I. If this was a director’s thread I’d go into some of his films in more detail…but it aint.
Amelia and the Angel makes me weep for the precious first glimmer it gives us into the sweetest corner of this patchwork soul and I am pleased to be able to present it here for everyone’s enjoyment. And because I am a good person I have also uploaded Pretty Village Pretty Flame, its competition:):)
Lovely intro Meg. Many congratulations for this submission. This is right amongst the top films I have seen in this WC so far. It’s one of those films that fills you with pure joy.
To Amelia, all boys were horrid little beasts; and her brother was the most horrid of all
thanks Rohit…yes that ^ was great wasn’t it, I loved that bit too.
Haha…the way he goes about destroying the wing is hilarious.
yeah he had a fine old time in the park, little beast
I’m hoping to do this match!
completely charming xD thanks for choosing this
I watched this one this morning. I was going to mention one thing that urked me about the film was that we were supposed to feel sympathetic for a girl who made such an utterly baffling and stupid decision at the beginning, and I was going to liken her to the same kind of annoyance I felt with the girl in The White Balloon. But after reading your description about how the film was supposed to show us all how we make stupid decisions and try to look for retribution, I feel a bit shamed.
I thought it was an interesting little film, but it’s hard for me to imagine that when it came out it was the first film of it’s kind that a of BBC executive had ever seen. I’m not doubting this is the case, but it’s hard to place myself in a time when this seemed that innovative.
It seems clear to me that a lot of the joy you get from this film is picturing it as the starting point in a career of a director for whom you like a lot of his other films. Unfortunately I don’t get that same benefit since I’ve only seen one other film from Russell, Tommy, which I thought was too grotesque and over the top for my taste.
Thank you so much for creating the intro topic though because it gave me a lot of insights I needed for the film.