The Ghost of Richard Harris (2022) Venice Film Festival

September 4th, 2022
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Adrian Sibley; Documentary with Jared Harris, Jamie Harris, Damian Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, Elizabeth Harris, Jim Sheridan, Stephen Rea, Russell Crowe; UK 2022, 106 min.

Richard Harris (1930-2002) is seen through the eyes of his three sons: Jamie, Jared – both actors – and Damian, a filmmaker, pictured opening a vault where the famous Irish actor’s papers are kept. Each in turn gasps in amazement to discover the contents, giving this watchable biopic a rather fulsome flavour.

Making his entree into the film world with bit parts in ‘boys own’ classics such as The Guns of Navarone, Richard Harris got his big break in Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963) his rambunctious rugby player Frank Machin on a collision course with everyone and everything was to be the role model for many features which followed, garnering him ‘Best Actor’ in Cannes. Yet, only one year later, he looked very much at home in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert alongside Monica Vitti.

Perhaps this is a key to the enigma of Harris: a raucous, alcohol-dependent brawler – who gave up drinking for a decade between 1981 and 1991- and a lover of poetry. He was obsessed with his poetry, despite his moody personality which often resulted in physical violence. His state of mind certainly had it roots in his two-year confinement to bed with TB, as a young man. Both the poetry and the dare-devil adventures on and off the screen are explainable: the introvert was afraid that illness would consume his life – so he might as well go for it hell for leather.

Harris was married between 1957 and 1969 to the aristocratic Elizabeth Rees-Williams, the couple had three sons. A second marriage, to American actor Ann Turkel, lasted another twelve years. “I have not the ability to sustain relationships” Harris sighed. Director Jim Sheridan, who directed Harris in The Field (1990), talks about the same problem.

In the 1981 theatre revival of ‘Camelot’, Harris and co-star Vanessa Redgrave re-invented how to perform a musical: instead of lip synchrony, both actors sang their own text, and Harris would have a worldwide career as a singer. In the end, there was Gladiator and his swansong, Dumbledore, in the first two “Harry Potter” features. His grandchild, by now a mother herself, destroys one of the Harris legends: she claimed she would never speak to him again if he played Dumbledore. In reality, Harris would not commit to three months in New Zealand shooting Lord of the Rings. Dumbledore was easier to sustain. When Harris left the Savoy for the last time (he had a suite there for decades) he was suffering from Hodgkinson’s Disease, and jokingly blamed the hotel’s food for his demise.

DoP Eoin McLoughlin tries his best to liven up proceedings in a film which occasionally seems rather stultifying. But there is more than enough material to sustain a modest running time – although a little more of the Harris spirit would gone down rather well. The old rascal would certainly have quickened up the tempo. AS




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