Crimes Of Passion


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Crimes Of Passion
"For all its flaws - and it has many - Crimes Of Passion is a vibrant and unforgettable film."

Coming after the censor-baiting brilliance of The Devils and Savage Messiah but before the descent into self-parody of Gothic and Lair Of The White Worm, Crimes Of Passion is perhaps Ken Russell's most effective compromise between coherence and genius. With a classy cast and a significantly more substantial budget than most of his work, it's a bold attempt to bring eroticism into the mainstream that paved the way for later, more widely accepted films like Blue Velvet and Only God Forgives. Though it's wildly uneven and in places comes across like straight-to-video schlock, it amply illustrates a filmmaking talent that shook the industry.

Kathleen Turner, fresh from the unaccountable success of Raiders Of The Lost Ark rip-off Romancing The Stone, is Joanna, a bored designer who escapes into a fantasy world by moonlighting as a sex worker. She features in the film's very first scene, enthroned, wearing a sash and a cheap tiara with all the imperious glory that Elizabeth Taylor brought to Cleopatra. The next moment she's on her knees, sucking a stranger's cock and smearing her lipstick in directions that defy the laws of physics.

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We don't actually see the cock, of course. The film was very carefully shot; it's still loaded with suggestion but it was cut extensively to appease the censor. This leads to unfortunate moments of hilarity when what is suggested is physically impossible at that angle. There's also a Herschell Gordon-Lewis moment when Joanna is toying with a cuffed cop and forces his baton bloodily into his stomach because the film can't get away with her doing what she's obviously intended to be doing. But we get the point, and the eroticism is present regardless. Viewed in an age when high definition has shattered porn's beauty myths, Russell's warts-and-all approach is much more powerful because it openly embraces the real, because it illustrates that real joy can be found in artificial intimacy.

It's the sense of joy in Turner's performance that really gives the film its strength, even if it's compromised a little along the way by suggestions that Joanna is really living this way as a result of trauma and her deepest desire is to find a nice man to settle down with - the sort of moral message Russ Meyer used to slot into his films as a joke, but which here speaks of a studio trying to have its cake and eat it. Russell balances it nicely, however, with the boredom she exhibits as she turns her face away from a trick of sits in the back of a cab being fondle by a rich couple who are complaining about Jews. The same tired look graces the face of a stripper dancing in a peep show where men are going crazy for a glimpse of her wrinkled arse, and this is where we first encounter Joanna's would-be saviour - or nemesis - the Reverend Shayne.

Casting Anthony Perkins was inevitably going to set up certain expectations in the audience and indeed, for all Perkins' hard work (he slept in costume for weeks to achieve the right look), there are times when it's impossible not to look at him and see Norman Bates - something not helped, it has to be said, by the way Russell has him wield a weaponised dildo, or by the film's climactic scene. As with Bates, however, there's an aspect of tragedy to this troubled character which elevates the film above its cheesy plotline and makes him a notably more interesting foil than Bobby (John Laughlin) is a romantic lead.

This latter issue isn't really Laughlin's fault - he has the thankless task of playing the straight guy in a framework where everybody else is more glamorous, and the effect is worse today because, for all his sweetness, he has come to seem old fashioned, adrift, where other characters could quite easily inhabit the 21st Century. Despite this, there is some poignancy and a lot more subtlety than one might expect in the overtrodden story of the married man's dissatisfaction with his sexless life and his obsession with Joanna. A dramatic shift in lighting style highlights the difference between the two worlds, and he and his friends dress like the young teenagers they're still trying to be, living in a fantasy world every bit as much as Joanna - just having a lot less fun doing it. For all that Joanna gets the best lines, Barry Sandler's script ably brings out the viciousness and bewilderment of suburban life.

Showing, though this, that he can tell a mainstream story when he wants to, Russell doesn't hesitate to plunge us back into the action with a random musical number, and the eroticised nuns and air hostesses who routinely populate his work get their moment int he spotlight here too. The film is full of in-jokes and motifs that extend beyond the characters into the actors' bodies of work - Turner snipping away with the scissors she would turn on Michael Douglas' belongings in War Of The Roses and use to deadly effect as Serial Mom.

For all its flaws - and it has many - Crimes Of Passion is a vibrant and unforgettable film. It's very much a fantasy - no real sex worker would be as careless about safety as Joanna is - but it's never ashamed if itself, and despite the moralising, that's an attitude it seeks to share with the viewer.

Reviewed on: 12 Jul 2016
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Crimes Of Passion packshot
A designer moonlighting as a sex worker has an affair with a married man and is threatened by a stalker.

Director: Ken Russell

Writer: Barry Sandler

Starring: Kathleen Turner, John Laughlin, Anthony Perkins, Annie Potts, Bruce Davison

Year: 1984

Runtime: 107 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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