The Curmudgeon


Saturday, December 29, 2007

Artemis 81

Alastair Reid 1981

Broadcast by the BBC on 29 December 1981, Artemis 81 treats of an epic battle for the future of mankind, fought between angel of light Helith (played by Sting) and angel of death Asrael (Roland Curram), through the mind of a successful but spiritually impoverished occult novelist, Gideon Harlax (Hywel Bennett).

The story is simple enough. After a visually superb prologue in which Asrael and Helith are seen pleading their respective cases to the Earth-mother Magog, Harlax's girlfriend Gwen (Dinah Stabb) meets celebrity organist Albrecht von Drachenfels (Dan O'Herlihy). An unwilling pawn of Asrael, von Drachenfels provides Gwen and Harlax with a series of clues about a broken statuette of the goddess, the pieces of which are responsible for a mysterious series of suicides around the country. Harlax investigates the deaths, seeing them as little more than useful material for his next book; but as soon as concern for Gwen's safety breaks through his habitual detachment he is spirited away by Helith. The scales (in the form of a pair of heavy spectacles) having been forcibly removed from his eyes, Harlax is cast adrift in a nightmarish, plague-ridden city; but with Helith's help he finds his way into an underground complex where Gwen, a film theorist friend of his, and the suicides' loved ones are being kept and brainwashed with fake stimuli. Harlax and Gwen escape in time to receive von Drachenfels' last signal and defeat Asrael.

Unfortunately, Artemis 81 suffers from a number of affectations which distract from its considerable virtues and make it seem more obscure than it really is; I distinctly remember, across more than a quarter of a century, one reviewer's plaintive cry of "What was it all about?" The screenwriter, David Rudkin, signally failed to learn the important lesson that what reads beautifully on the page may sound ridiculous on screen; and although there are occasional fine lines, Rudkin's cod-poetic dialogue sits very ill with the everyday locations in the first half of the film, and adds little or nothing to the brilliantly conceived nightmares in the second. Pace that reviewer's complaint, the writing is also clunkily over-explicit at times, notably in a lengthy monologue just before the climax, in which Gwen tells Harlax a number of things which either have already been conveyed to the viewer, or else should have been conveyed in a fashion less dramatically inept. The film is also stuck with a painfully symbolic line delivered by Harlax direct to the camera at the end, and with a number of obtrusive quotations from Hitchcock which, despite the fact that Harlax's film theorist friend is apparently a Hitchcock specialist (he delivers a lecture on Vertigo), come across as irrelevant, heavy-handed and insufferably arch. Even the climax is nearly bungled, with a misplaced reference to Hammer's Dracula films.

Despite all this, and despite a running time of three hours or so, Artemis 81 is thoroughly compelling. The related mysteries of the suicides and the statuette, and von Drachenfels' clues involving some sheet music and a golfball typewriter, are intriguingly set up and lucidly worked out. Visually the film is very sophisticated; and such extraordinary images as the waking of Magog in the prologue, and such scenes as the meeting of Gwen and von Drachenfels on the ferry or Harlax's bewildered wandering of the nightmare city, would redeem almost any amount of bad writing. The city is a darkened slum where train passengers collapse coughing blood and a strange language is spoken - symbolising, perhaps, the fact that Harlax has yet to grow into his newly acquired vision. The place seems populated entirely by refugees; incomprehensible announcements echo constantly from loudspeakers; Harlax sees a copy of one of his own books, but the title is undecipherable. The sequence in the underground complex is equally mesmerising, as one of Asrael's minions interrogates his deluded charges from behind a laser screen; another minion, talking to Asrael on the telephone, reassures himself that it's all for the best really; and Harlax's belated attempt to return his friend's affection results in screaming, scalding agony.

I saw Artemis 81 on its original transmission and never forgot it even though, at twelve years of age, I undoubtedly had very little idea myself as to what it was all about. Watching it again, I was reminded of the Scots novelist David Lindsay, who is now known almost solely for his outstanding first novel, A Voyage to Arcturus (1920). Lindsay, whose other books amply repay the difficulty and expense of finding them and the frequent dissatisfactions of reading them, displays a very similar combination of visionary imagery and verbal clumsiness. Beautiful, annoying, half-baked and haunting, Artemis 81 stands as a brilliant example of the way in which interesting pretentiousness can be a good deal more satisfactory than solid professionalism and good old-fashioned storytelling.


  • At 2:01 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Thank you for reviewing this. I was 15 years old when it aired on the Beeb all those years ago, and spent a great deal of time thinking about it and trying to figure out what it was all about. I just watched it again on youtube after 30+ years, and kind of figured it out, but appreciated your review to help me gel my thoughts on it.

  • At 10:47 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Very good review. I have been inspecting David Rudkin's corpus the past month or so, and find him to be an exceptional visionary dramatist. PENDA'S FEN is simply a masterpiece of pagan and Christian mysticism. ARTEMIS 81, which I have been meaning to watch, looks very interesting, too; I know of no other work that fuses Orwellian dystopia, science fiction, a Colin Wilsonian paranormal writer, and pagan horror and mysticism into a frustrating and potent mix.

  • At 1:27 am , Blogger Philip said...

    Thanks – Yes, interesting is definitely the word. I'd never heard of Penda's Fen, which I see is considered one of the best British films ever made, and has therefore never been released on DVD (although a prohibitively expensive box set of works by the director, Alan Clarke, is due out in the spring).

  • At 4:33 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    an amazing and totally unique work , which deserves to be remembered as a classic . a shattering example of all what great television ought to be ...but so rarely is. would writers and directors take an age of dumbing down , quota figures and like ARTEMIS 81 show what might have been ... shame on you all for letting standards fall so low..


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