Well, we’ve been looking forward to this one for a long, long time.
Bruce Dickinson’s intention to produce a movie featuring Crowley in a prominent role was first mentioned on LAShTAL.COM back in 2002 and I’m told by a prominent bookseller that he was discussing it as much as eighteen years ago. Similarly, Simon Callow has long been linked to Crowley, with suggestions back in the 1990s that he would be performing the role in a movie adaptation of Snoo Wilson’s “The Beast” (aka “The Number Of The Beast”).
After seeing his performance in “Four Weddings And A Funeral” there was little doubt that he could bring the character to life. After the death of Oliver Reed and the departure of Alan Rickman to Hollywood’s major league, there are few actors left with the breadth and charisma that the role would require.
So, these two have managed to achieve what few thought possible: a full-length movie derived from a genuine fascination with the life of Aleister Crowley. It’s a labour of love … and it shows. Let’s get one thing straight, though: in the same way that Monty Python’s “Life Of Brian” was not “about” Jesus Christ, “Chemical Wedding” is not “about” Aleister Crowley. Crowley does appear on screen but not as performed by Simon Callow. Callow plays a University Professor possessed by the spirit of Crowley – and that’s important for a fair assessment of the movie.
The film’s plotline is described in detail elsewhere on this site and I do not plan to repeat it here. It is worth pointing out, though, that the film starts with the arrival at Netherwood House by “Symons” and a fellow student chum. The Crowley they’ve come to visit is played to absolute perfection by John Shrapnel. Okay, the Crowley he plays is of the Cefalu variety – bald and brooding, debauched and drugged – when he should be old and whispy but you can forgive the filmmakers this indulgence in getting Crowley at his malevolent best onto the screen. And the actor’s voice! You really do have to hear it to believe it: redolent with tired menace, it’s no surprise that Mr Shrapnel appears to be one of the most employed actors in the UK at the moment.
It’s a real shame that Mr Shrapnel isn’t given more screen time as Crowley and things move a little too quickly to the modern day (well, to the year 2001) and to a University Campus in Hertfordshire, standing in for the rather more expensive location of Cambridge. The various characters are introduced competently enough: Victor, Lia, Mathers (see where we’re going with this?) and, of course, Simon Callow as Oliver Haddo, a stuttering and ineffectual crusty old professor. A small budget is apparent in the locations and the filming but it looks no worse than your average UK TV detective series and the acting is certainly better than I would have expected. An honourable mention has to go to Lucy Cudden who manages to create a sympathetic and attractive character out of Lia, never lapsing into “distraught stumbling female” mode.
But it’s Callow that stands out in the bulk of the movie. His transformation from stuttering fool to arrogant bombast is simply astonishing. The scene where he is first introduced to his students in full Crowley-possessed mode is especially well done: who’d have believed that we’d see a prominent actor in a professionally produced movie reading out loud the whole of Crowley’s “To Pe or Not To Pe” from “Snowdrops From A Curate’s Garden”? As the movie progresses, Haddo’s behaviour becomes increasingly outrageous – often to really excellent comic effect. The visual gags involving the fax machine have to be seen to be believed, as does the sequence where Haddo shaves the pubic hair from a not-very-Scarlet Woman.
And it’s on this point that I’d like to focus for a moment. This is not a serious film: it’s a comedy. It professes to be nothing more than a rollicking ride and that’s what it delivers. No-one will leave the cinema with an increased understanding of Thelema, of occultism or even, to be honest, of Crowley. But most will have enjoyed the ride and just might have seen enough of Crowley to want to read a little more. But there’s no point in criticising this movie for failing to deliver what it didn’t intend to deliver in the first place. So having declared that the film isn’t serious – and it isn’t – I feel it’s only right to point out that there’s actually a couple of quite intelligent sub-plots going on. First, there’s cyberspace as astral plane. Not an astoundingly new idea but quite well handled here, although it’s hampered by being set in 2001 on this score: a more modern take might add all manner of “Internet as Aethyr” and “code as Angelic script” conjecture, but I guess they wanted the male lead to be attractive to the female members of the audience, despite having been born in 1947 (an essential plot device that I shan’t explore here). Lopping seven years from his age certainly would have helped. Secondly, there’s the whole issue regarding Haddo’s personality. He doesn’t become Crowley; rather he becomes an exaggerated pastiche of the man and it’s clear that this is done for a reason. I suspect that what it’s saying is that Haddo permits himself to become what he perceives Crowley to be…
So, in summary? We have an amusing romp, an effective and fundamentally English comedy made by individuals with a genuine interest in the subject – people who have struggled for years and against all odds and expectation to bring something fresh to the screen. If you see this movie and you’re offended by its flippant treatment of Thelema, then just console yourself that you’re not a member of the movie’s target audience. Just sit back and take it for a ride. You’ll be glad you did.