Rasputin: The Mad Monk

Rasputin: The Mad Monk


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin; few real historical figures have ever loomed so large in art, and his presence in cinema is no exception. Over a dozen films have been made about him, with varying degrees of historical accuracy. This is not the most accurate of them, but there are different ways of getting at truth in cinema, and whilst it strays quite a bit from the letter, it provides a fine evocation of the spirit. Only Tom Baker has ever come close to matching Christopher Lee's riveting performance in this role. Lee gives us a flavour of what it might have been like to encounter the man himself.

Rasputin: The Mad Monk is a Hammer Horror film, and by 1966 Hammer certainly knew how to keep their particular audience happy. No time is wasted here. One moment Rasputin is striding forcefully in through a door demanding wine; the next he's healing the innkeeper's desperately ill wife; the next he's rolling in the hay with their daughter, doing violence to her resentful boyfriend. Before we know it we're off to St Petersburg, where drinking competitions and willfully submissive women, frustrated by the limitations of polite society, provide an easy and surprisingly direct route to power.

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There are some oddities about this story, besides its condensed nature. As the film was made when some of its real-life characters were still alive, and famously litigious, it walks a careful line. The heavily rumoured affair between Rasputin and the Russian Tsarina is hinted at but never made explicit (it would be fair to argue that political corruption was the real problem with it anyway). Tsarevich Alexei's haemophilia, still taboo in that era, isn't mentioned at all. And perhaps most notably, Prince Felix Yusupov, widely believed to be the man who finally killed the mad monk, is completely absent, his shoes being filled by other conspirators with personal more than political reasons to resent the man. Yusupov insisted on personally approving the scripts before filming was allowed to go ahead.

Perhaps the Prince reckoned without Lee's performance. Electric as it is, it more than redresses any imbalance, and viewers can no more help being drawn to this charismatic man than can the hapless lady in waiting Sonia (Barbara Shelley) or disgraced doctor Boris (Richard Pasco). Despite his cruelty and his obvious disregard for social niceties, he's a compelling figure who verges on the heroic (and very much suits the traditions of a country whose people mourned Ivan the Terrible because they felt safe under his forceful rule, despite the fact he killed hundreds of thousands of them). Physically, Lee shares Rasputin's famous hypnotic eyes, and he immerses himself in the role, for which he bulked up considerably, moving in a way unlike any other character he played. This, along with a supporting cast who play their parts with real conviction, elevates the film above the level of mere melodrama and turns it into a gripping cinematic experience.

Oh, those Russians...

Reviewed on: 27 Jun 2010
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A wayward biopic of one of history's most astonishing and controversial figures.
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Director: Don Sharp

Writer: Anthony Hinds

Starring: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Richard Pasco, Francis Matthews, Renée Asherson, Dinsdale Landen, Suzan Farmer

Year: 1966

Runtime: 91 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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