The Devils and Miss Jones


I totally missed an excellent opportunity to interview Gemma Jones this week. I could have called in THE DEVILS and Miss Jones. It didn’t even occur to me to ask, as I was all geared up to interview somebody else — and the fruits of THAT interview will appear here soon.

I would have asked her all about THE DEVILS, of course — I’m pretty well totally ignorant about the rest of her career. But she manages an important and difficult task in that, her debut film (wait, hang on, just looking it up — yes, it WAS her debut film). She’s the least extreme character in the movie — and yet, surrounded by lunatics and scheming villains, she holds our interest. Though the movie seems at times to endorse a Catholic Madonna/whore schism, GJ’s character is neither — she has a perfectly healthy sex drive and the film respects her for it. She is puzzled and vexed by the challenge of living a good life according to the precepts of the Church, whilst surrounded by corruption and things that don’t seem to fit with what the Book says — as anyone might be. Besides marrying Oliver Reed (in a “blasphemous midnight nuptial,” my favourite kind), her main plot role is to ask intelligent questions.


As madness takes over, Jones disappears from the movie, only to abruptly take over in the final shot, which is a stunner. I actually suggested this film to Sight & Sound when invited to write about a movie ending. This is surely the best of its year. I’m kind of glad I wasn’t tasked with writing a thousand words for publication on it, though, since I don’t know what I’d have said, other than raving on about its magnificence.

Well, maybe I’d have referred back to the two dream sequences — actually, masturbatory fantasies would be more accurate. Looks to me like these were shot in Russell’s beloved Lake District (Russell fans should totally go there — it’d be like TOMMY going back to the source at the end of his film), although the only non-Pinewood location listed is Bamburgh* — a stone’s throw from me! (But we know they also filmed in a prison somewhere, for Richelieu’s library, and some stately gardens for the King to shoot his Protestant crow in.) Russell always regretted not shooting both of these in black & white, for consistency’s sake. I say the hell with consistency — the vibrant red of Vanessa Redgrave’s hair is reason enough for colour.


Vanessa’s Sister Jeanne has hair in these sequences as she imagines herself as Mary Magdalen, drying Christ’s feet with her hair — probably the sexiest bit in the New Testament — if you need porn and all you have to hand is the Bible, I recommend turning to Book One. The red is great, but admittedly what cinematographer David Watkin does with the b&w is also wonderful — printed on colour stock, it emerges with quite a strong indigo tint, and it has the blown-out highlights he discovered on THE KNACK.


How does this reflect on the ending, in which Gemma Jones wanders from close-up into extreme longshot, through the broken walls of Loudun (up a hill of shattered masonry) and off along a narrow road lined with skeletons broken on the wheel. Well, that shot imperceptibly turns to b&w as it cranes up, helped by the lack of colour in the setting anyway, so that by the time we’ve risen over the wall to see the distant terrain, the world has performed a reverse Oz transformation, just in time for the end credits to appear in bold RED.

It’s beautiful and bleak, and it feels meaningful too, in a poetic way I can’t pin down. I want to suggest that the world has been subsumed into Sister Jeanne’s fantasies. Madness has won. Her perverted view of religion has triumphed even as the city walls came tumbling down. The connection is not really that literal, of course, since Russell does not use words to express it, only images, which speak more powerfully and more primitively to us.


*Bamburgh Castle doubles for Loudun in the long shot near the film’s start, where Dudley Sutton and a Protestant slave gang is transporting a vast, grey, slug-like tarpaulin-swathed cart of demolition equipment across your basic blasted heath. It’s probably the same landscape from the final shot — I never knew it was Scotland! The castle and adjoining beach also feature in Polanski’s MACBETH, BECKETT and THE TEMPEST, directed by DEVILS’ designer Derek Jarman.

11 Responses to “The Devils and Miss Jones”

  1. Bamburgh is in Northumbria…’s sole purpose has always been not to be Scottish … :)

  2. Ha! But it’s REALLY close…

    But I recall reading up on Polanski’s locations and finding them un-Scottish, so this makes sense. He would have found himself uncomfortably close to the location from Cul-de-Sac, a place he found less than admirable, socially. The natives would entertain themselves of an evening with blasting schrapnel at rats from a cannon.

  3. Matty Stanfield Says:

    Great piece!

  4. Outside of The Devils the only other Gemma Jones performance I’m aware of is in You Will Meet a Dark Stranger — an exceptionally flimsy Woody Allen entry.

    As for other Russell actresses, Georgina Hale fascinates me.

  5. John Warthen Says:

    Anyone wanting a crash-course in Gemma Jones shoud seek out three radically different performance, given at 10 year intervals: her early “Spoils of Poynton” (the surging Rachmaninoff theme practically dictated long-term affection), her extended star-turn in “Duchess of Duke Street”, and a lovely supporting part in the cult film “Paperhouse”. As with the somewhat similar career of Blythe Danner, one remembers such appearances, decades apart though they be, and wishes for more frequent sightings.

  6. Gemma Jones played Emma Thompson’s mother in “Sense and Sensibility”. At one point on the DVD commentary, the producer recalls “The Devils”, in which Jones spends a lot of time topless, was on TV one night when they were on location and much of the crew saw it. You wait for a punchline but he leaves it at that.

  7. John, thanks for the tips!

    Jones is never topless in The Devils, so far as I recall. He must have confused her with Georgina Hale (not an easy thing to do).

  8. I was OBSESSED with Gemma Jones and The Duchess Of Duke Street when I was ten. She (the actor and the character) fascinated me. Especially the tight, determined way she moved. She reminded me of my aunt in that respect.

  9. She was a household name in 1970s,in the UK. I add my three cheers for her iconic performance, unforgettable in every episode, as the eponymous Duchess of Duke Street (the music for which, like the soundtrack of Upstairs Downstairs, was composed by my old – *very* old – friend Alexander Faris, who died last year at 94, and who had never stopped working.)

  10. And Bamburgh is the location at which poor David Meyer had to emerge, naked and nearly blue with cold, from the North Sea on a pitiless grey and windswept/rainpocked English afternoon in Jarman’s marvellous Tempest.

  11. I’m presuming Jarman noted the location when filming The Devils…

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