NIC Roeg, the film director who has died aged 90, revealed a highly individual visual style in such films as Don’t Look Now, Performance, Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Witches.
Resigned to being described, even in his 60s, as “promising”, Roeg did not fall comfortably into any tradition of film-making and did not enjoy a mercurial career, but his impact was unmistakable: directors such as Danny Boyle, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott and Steven Soderbergh have all enthusiastically acknowledged his influence.
Having worked his way up from clapper-boy, he directed his first film at the age of 40. His films frequently baffled, shocked and alienated. Sadly, his audiences often arrived long after his films were initially released. The critical and popular success of Don’t Look Now, his macabre masterpiece of 1973 in which Donald Sutherland experiences disturbing premonitions in a wintry Venice while mourning, with Julie Christie, the death of their daughter, proved the exception rather than the rule. Despite being periodically hailed as the sole contemporary British film-maker of lasting significance, Roeg made only 13 feature films, most of which made no money.
Roeg was a man with an insatiable appetite for literature and thought, and his fascination for the fragile boundaries of identity, sexuality and time led him to elide the external world of events with the psychic world of his characters, and to evolve a style in which conventional methods of narration were eschewed in favour of flashbacks, dizzying montages, prophetic glimpses and abstract images of great poetic potency.
Nicolas Jack Roeg was born in London on August 15, 1928. His interest in cinema began at Mercers’ School in the City of London, where he attempted to run a film society, and continued during his National Service in the Army as a unit projectionist. Certain that he wanted to make films, he obtained a job at Marylebone Studios across the road from the family home.
In 1950 he applied for a job working on The Miniver Story at Borehamwood Studios, and began his long haul upwards from clapper-boy.
Roeg spent the next decade as a crew member on good, bad and indifferent films before graduating to director of photography. Among the significant films were The Caretaker for Clive Donner, The Masque Of The Red Death for Roger Corman, Fahrenheit 451 for Francois Trauffaut and Far From the Madding Crowd for John Schlesinger.
All these were distinguished by exceptional photography, and Roeg began to be singled out for praise.
In 1967 Roeg prepared to make his directorial debut with Walkabout, scripted by the playwright Edward Bond, the story of two white children saved from the desert by an Aborigine child but the project was shelved, and Roeg’s debut was Performance in 1968, which he co-directed with the artist Donald Cammell.
The fate of this film established the pattern for his career. Hated by its distributors, Warner Brothers, it was only finally released in 1970.
An exploration of identity, and a fusillade over the grave of the 1960s, it depicted a reclusive pop icon, Mick Jagger, and a fugitive criminal, James Fox, trapped in a decadent web of narcotics, sex and narcissism in a West London den in the company of Anita Pallenberg. The film earned a caustic reception but it was admired for its visual flair. As with much of Roeg’s work, it ascended, via cult status, to be recognised as an important departure for British cinema; an art film aimed at the young, and the work of a director for whom style and content held equal significance.
Walkabout, finally made in 1970, was in an entirely different vein. Thoughtful, compassionate and suffused with a childlike sense of wonder, its evocation of the Australian landscape has often been seen as a spur to directors such as Peter Weir, who were to revitalise the Australian film industry.
It was not a cheerful film, however, and Roeg’s burgeoning reputation for elliptical gloom was enhanced in striking fashion by Don’t Look Now, one of the most stylish British films of the last 50 years. The plot, adapted from Daphne du Maurier’s short story, hinges on the possibility of second sight, providing perfect fodder for Roeg. Opening with an unforgettable sequence in which a young girl drowns in a pond, Roeg used motifs, repeated images and elaborate cutting between past, present and future to create a vertiginous universe and a rarely equalled sense of foreboding.
Three years, and many travails, later came The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976). Again making use of the iconic potency of a pop superstar, Roeg cast David Bowie as the alien who wants to take water back home to save his race but ends up an earthbound alcoholic. Like most critics on its release, Roger Ebert was mostly dismissive, describing the film as “preposterous and posturing”, but when it was re-released in 2011 he had softened, writing: “Consider this a quiet protest vote against the way projects this ambitious are no longer possible in the mainstream movie industry.”
It was to be 1980 before Roeg made another film. Bad Timing, now accorded the status of a minor classic and compared with Hitchcock’s Vertigo, was so hated by its distributors, Rank, that they removed their famous man with the gong from the pre-credits sequence. A bleak and characteristically oblique meditation on obsession and self-knowledge, it featured another pop star, Art Garfunkel, as a professor of Freud whose smug composure is destroyed in the course of a tortuous relationship with a young woman (played by Theresa Russell, who became Roeg’s wife).
In a scene of supreme bad taste, Russell’s character attempts suicide to escape her lover’s psychological attrition; finding her dying, he ravishes her before calling for help. The icy logic of the piece, its necrophiliac undertones and intense voyeurism, added to what the New Statesman called “a style that plays merry hell with chronology” and did not make comfortable viewing. “It deals purely in despair,” wrote Variety.
Roeg’s precipitous career slipped over the brink when, the following year, the distributors of his next film, Eureka, starring Gene Hackman, furious at the pessimism and lack of clear plot, were reluctant even to let the film be shown.
The experience devastated Roeg. His next two films, Insignificance (1985), and Castaway (1986), showed signs of insecurity. Although they were more comprehensible they were less enduring. The former, perhaps Roeg’s most intentionally humorous piece, was an adaptation of a play by Terry Johnson which brought together a group of mythic figures loosely based on Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and Senator Joseph McCarthy for an unlikely debate on time, fame and mortality. Castaway (1986), based on the experiences of Lucy Irvine, who spent a year on a desert island with the writer Gerald Kingsland, contained one of Oliver Reed’s best performances.
Track 29 (1988) was principally notable for an electric performance from Gary Oldman as the fantasised son and lover of an unhappy alcoholic housewife, played by Theresa Russell. Though written by Dennis Potter, it was not an exceptional film. The material seemed too familiar, the dazzling technique simply technique.
The Witches (1990), adapted from Roald Dahl’s dark fairy tale, fell somewhere between adult allegory and childish nightmare. It had the most linear narrative of any of his work and was one of his happiest commercial ventures, without resorting to stylistic apostasy. Dahl hated it.
Things never became easier. In 1992, Cold Heaven, Roeg’s version of a Brian Moore novel, was shown as one of the high-points of the London Film Festival, still lacking a commercial distributor, an extraordinary position for someone of Roeg’s prestige.
Grandly romantic and drenched in images that sparked off unexpected associations in the viewer, Roeg’s best work was courageous, pioneering cinema. In spite of his difficulties, and the lack of support he received from the institutions of his home country, he was never publicly bitter. “I haven’t had an easy ride,” he said, “but at least I’ve had a ride.”
Nicolas Roeg, who died on November 23, was appointed CBE in 1996. He was married three times. First, in 1957, to the actress Susan Stephen, with whom he had four sons. The marriage ended in divorce, and in 1982 Roeg married Theresa Russell, with whom he had another two sons. They divorced in 2004. In 2005 Roeg married Harriet Harper, who survives him.
INFLUENCE: Jenny Agutter and Nicolas Roeg at the Evening Standard Film Awards at The Movieum in County Hall, London