News: 10 July 2023

Julian Sands (1958-2023)

Julian Sands at the Keats-Shelley House

Everyone at the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association was deeply saddened by the death of Julian Sands. As well as being one of the most beloved and striking actors of his generation, Julian was a passionate supporter of the Keats-Shelley House in Rome. His sell-out readings of works by Keats, Byron and of course Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom Julian portrayed in Ken Russell’s 1986 film Gothic, became a much-loved part of the museum’s events calendar.

When I began a series of ‘Synchronised Poetry Readings’ during lockdown, Julian responded instantly, not only joining in from Los Angeles, but recording readings of Shakespeare and Keats.

Julian first visited the Keats-Shelley as a teenager, long before he began his acting career in movies like The Killing Fields and television shows including The Box of Delights and The Sun Also Rises. These small parts lead to Julian’s breakthrough as George Emerson in Merchant-Ivory’s Room With a View (1985). He was the perfect choice to capture the enigmatic Emerson in all his complexity: the wild artist trapped in the body of a middle-class clerk, working with uncomplaining integrity to look after his ailing father (Denholm Elliott). The scene in which George bellows “Beauty! Beauty!” into the Tuscan countryside, before smooching Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) in a poppy field, went a long way to making Julian a star.

Julian Sands and Helena Bonham-Carter in Room with a View

Perhaps it also persuaded Ken Russell that Julian was the actor to play Shelley opposite Gabriel Byrne’s Lord Byron, Natasha Richardson’s Mary Shelley and Timothy Spall’s John Polidori. Russell’s dramatisation of the Romantic shenanigans at Villa Diodati in 1816 is by turns vivid, visionary and distinctly uncorked. In doing so, it was probably not a million miles from reality. The film begins like many horror movies before and indeed since: a group of bright and beautiful young things rock up at a spooky mansion, complete with spooky inhabitants. In the second act, however, Russell accelerates rapidly towards gale-force Ken, thanks to a potent brew of sex, seances (around a skull, naturally) and imaginations tipped over the edge by laudanum, Gothic literature and poetic paranoia.

Julian is in particularly fine if unfettered form, convincing as a Shelley teetering on the brink of several nervous breakdowns: whether he berates his friends for releasing demons at the séance, smooching any combination of Mary/Byron/Claire Clairmont (he draws the line at Polidori) or enacting visions of his own early death at sea.

Julian Sands as Shelley in Gothic

While these early starring roles proposed Julian, not unreasonably, as leading man material, his performances were always just a little too weird, a little too wild and a little too otherworldly. While he was rarely off either the silver or small screen over the next four decades (see guest star parts in mainstream hits like 24, Smallville, The L Word, Ocean’s Thirteen, Dexter), the finest moments of his long career came in projects which exploited his strangeness rather than avoided it: Mary Lambert’s Siesta (1987), David Miner’s Warlock (1989), David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991), and Jennifer Lynch’s Boxing Helena (1993) and Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird (2019).

Julian spent most of his time in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles, making frequent trips to Italy. A keen and experienced mountain climber, he was a familiar presence in the Californian mountains where tragically he lost his life while hiking in January of this year. The public outpouring of grief from around the world paid eloquent testimony to his singular and intense talent. Everyone connected with the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association sends our sincerest condolences to his family and our deepest thanks to Julian for his generosity, kindness and glorious talent.

James Kidd

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