Delius – Song of Summer

2 Dec

This week saw the passing of the maverick British director Ken Russell, famous for his eccentric and, at times, flamboyant features that include Women in Love, The Devils and Altered States. Less well known however are the many features he directed for the BBC, many of which were biopics of classical composers including Delius – Song of Summer which Russell regarded as his greatest work. It stars Christopher Gable as Eric Fenby who transcribed composer Frederick Delius’ (Max Adrian) dictations due to him being blind and paralysed.

The tense relationship between Delius and Fenby is the beating heart of the film, perpetuated by tremendous performances from Gable and especially Adrian who manages to convincingly portray the suffering of the composer without making him too sympathetic. You see, Delius is an altogether unsympathetic character as his irritable and oafish personality sparks demanding, abusive behaviour towards Fenby and his wife which pushes them to breaking point. At times, the relationship between Delius and Fenby seems almost parasitic – when Fenby leaves Delius after their work is over, he has a nervous breakdown due to being unable to reconcile himself with the modern society he once belonged to. Fenby’s return to Delius is a very moving reunion and it is clear to see that they have formed a very strong paternal bond over their work together.

Russell filmed Delius – Song of Summer in black-and-white which cleverly mirrors the contrasts in the film, the biggest of which is the character of Delius himself. Fenby and Jelka, Delius’ wife, stay by his side and never let him down no matter how irascible he is because they believe that no one that can write such beautiful music can possibly be as rotten to the core as Delius’ facade would have them believe. The beliefs of Fenby and Delius also clash throughout the film, no matter if it is on the nature of love or the subject of religion.

Delius – Song of Summer is a remarkable tour de force from Russell and I am inclined to agree with him when he says it’s his best film. It is rare we get a full-length drama on the BBC nowadays that isn’t just another adaptation of Shakespeare, Dickens or Austen and is a truly lamentable loss that we no longer get the likes of Russell making riveting biopics.

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