April 20, 1987 12:00 PM

Lock up the kids and blindfold Granny: Ken Russell is at it again. The director, who once said, “I don’t believe there’s any virtue in understatement” and proved it with films from 1969’s Women in Love to 1984’s Crimes of Passion, has spewed out another lulu. Like his hyberbolic film biographies of Mahler, Tchaikovsky and Liszt, this movie deals with real people and events, filtered through Russell’s overstimulated imagination. The subjects are Byron and Shelley. The scene is Byron’s spooky Swiss mansion where the poets have gathered for a kinky, opium-induced go at the occult. Joining the two seemingly bisexual geniuses are Byron’s rejected lover Dr. John William Polidori, Shelley’s future wife, Mary Godwin, and her half-sister, Claire Clairmont, pregnant with Byron’s child. Inspired by a lightning storm, the fun quintet holds a seance. [Later, Godwin—then Mary Shelley—wrote Frankenstein and Polidori The Vampyre, the basis for Dracula.] Whatever really happened that night, chances are the facts couldn’t touch Russell’s fictional ravings. Russell can suck you in with his startling visuals, such as Shelley, buck naked on a rooftop, shouting defiance at the storm. But the excess grows wearying. For the actors it’s a contest to build character amid Russell’s visual bombardment, which includes a creature that’s part leech, part penis. Timothy Spall as Polidori and Myriam Cyr as Claire are film newcomers who lose the battle. In her film debut as Mary, Natasha Richardson, daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and director Tony (Tom Jones) Richardson, shows a radiance even Russell can’t dim. Gabriel (Defense of the Realm) Byrne as Byron and Julian (A Room With a View) Sands as Shelley also survive Russell, but are saddled with globs of playwright Stephen Volk’s misogynist dialogue. “Don’t waste your beautiful words on women,” Byron tells Shelley. “Poets are for each other.” Audiences at this Russell raunchfest are more likely to take their cue from another Volk line: “We have to leave here, all of us.” (R)

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