The Ghost of Richard Harris review – a hushed reassessment of a hellraiser by his sons | Venice Film Festival 2022
ADrian Sibley’s documentary is a brilliant, if sometimes intriguing, film about the legendary Irish actor and singer, who began his screen career as a pressure cooker of rage on the rugby pitch in Lindsay’s This Sporting Life Anderson and eventually became the beatific face of snowy-haired wisdom as Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films.
This must-watch movie takes it easy on Harris’ booze and brawling: in fact, it takes an almost counter-revolutionary approach to the whole subject. In recent years, talking about the hell of Ollie, Peter and Richard has usually been countered by a frowning diagnosis of alcoholism, and this movie simply cites Harris’ own rejection of it all: (“I drank because I liked it!”) and pretty much leaves it at that. Incredibly, Harris hired a press photographer to cover a week-long post-divorce European jaunt via a private plane he took with his entourage, who visited numerous bars and brothels – to humiliate his ex-wife, it is alleged, though his high-jinks were covered in chuckling hilarity in the papers. Harris’ cocaine use is barely mentioned: I suspect it doesn’t fit into the essentially sentimental narrative of alcohol.
We go from Harris’s childhood in a well-to-do home in Limerick in the Republic of Ireland, his idyllic summers in Kilkee in County Clare, with a large family whose stern and disciplinarian father was a powerful presence, then to the Jesuit school where getting the strap was normal. He came late to the theater, became a mature student at Lamda in London and, with remarkable entrepreneurial flair, rented a small theater to mount his own production of Clifford Odets’ Winter Journey (The Country Girl); this led to work with Joan Littlewood’s theater studio, stage roles in the West End, and then a stellar film career, with work in musical theatre, the long-running Camelot stage show and a tour amazing in pop music.
The most emotional parts of the film come with his three adult sons coming together to remember him: actor Jared Harris, director Damian Harris and actor Jamie Harris. They are still impressed by the colossal reputation he had cultivated far from their childhood (the boys had been placed in boarding schools). There’s something very ghostly about Jared’s return to the lavish suite Harris kept at London’s Savoy Hotel, where he spent his final days.
So where does the rage come from, Jared wonders, the rage behind so much excess? Sibley offers a very plausible explanation: When Harris was 19, his promising athletic career was ruined by a diagnosis of tuberculosis, which kept him bedridden and was also socially demeaning because tuberculosis was associated with the lower classes. It was in his sickbed that Harris discovered Shakespeare and the imaginative life – but perhaps that surge of imagination merged with a surge of frustration and rage.
And what about his emotional life and his family life? What was it really like, day after day, week after week, month after month for his wife Elizabeth Rees-Williams who was stuck at home and the boys sadly absent at boarding school, while Harris was away on location and on tour, s ‘fun ? Sexual indiscretions were an important but undiscussed part of drinking episodes, and post-alcohol amnesia was a practical route to self-forgiveness. The film gallantly distances itself from it. Mercy is how the movie works, but it wouldn’t work without it, and it’s a watchable study of a unique talent.