Derek Jarman

The Criterion Shelf: Queer Britannia – A Derek Jarman Retrospective

The Criterion Channel presents a complete retrospective of the groundbreaking British filmmaker's features.

It’s hard to imagine the last few decades of English cinema without Derek Jarman. Somewhere between the extremes of Merchant Ivory plushness and Mike Leigh‘s kitchen-sink realism, Jarman’s invocations of queer characterization, outspoken anti-Thatcherism and inventively stylized imagery bridged a gap between two camps of popular British movies. He created the Andrea Arnold-esque landscape that exists in that country’s cinematic output today.  As described by Alonso Duralde in his introduction to the Jarman collection on The Criterion Channel, he was equally famous for his activism as he was for his artistry. Derek Jarman sublimated his anger over Britain’s response to the AIDS crisis into his films. His artistic work crossed the worlds of stage design, writing, and fine art, but his legacy as a film director is what he is best known and remembered for.

Born in 1942 to parents who had married two years earlier on the day considered the busiest ever for British weddings (because of the war), Jarman studied painting at Slade School. He was set for a career in visual art when he took a job as art director for Ken Russell on The Devils (1971) and it changed his life for good. He began his directorial career with the sexy, provocative Sebastiane (1976), a film that started as a joke but turned out to be a landmark. It’s a sexy exercise in ripe gay imagery that also treads on a worthy subject (the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, performed in “vulgar Latin”).

With each subsequent project, Derek Jarman’s popularity and following grew. The Tempest (1979) brought him a wider audience thanks to its Shakespearean roots, while Jubilee (1978) earned him adoration from the cult crowd.  He arrived as a fully formed cinematic artist with his best film, Caravaggio (1986), an emotionally faithful but factually liberal interpretation of the seventeenth-century master Michelangelo da Caravaggio. A film that brilliantly plays with the form and nature of biopic, Caravaggio simultaneously presents the painter creating his stunning canvasses while using the film’s frame to be those works of art, exposing the hypocrisies of religion and bourgeois society that sees the passions and foibles of real life as something profane and immoral by elevating them through visual representation.  The film also brought Tilda Swinton and costume designer Sandy Powell to cinema for the first time, along with one of Sean Bean’s first notable roles. It was followed by an abandonment of narrative for a series of high-concept film collages that would find Jarman’s highest achievement in the brilliant, excoriating treatise on England under Thatcher, The Last of England.

A year before its release, Jarman became one of the few high profile figures to go public with his HIV-positive diagnosis. His fury over the marginalization of those suffering with the disease and his vocal opposition to the regressive Section 28 legislation (prohibiting the “promotion of homosexuality”) infused the familiar tone of his own uncompromising sensibilities in that film’s haunting images.  His subsequent works, War Requiem (1989) and The Garden (1990), would continue this impressionist phase before returning to a more conventional narrative with Edward II (1991), his most mainstream arthouse hit.  With his health failing, the production was a scaled down affair that would get even more reduced in Wittgenstein (1993). Blue (1993), his final project completed while he was alive, would have Jarman draw us into his world by representing the blindness that afflicted him before his eventual death in 1994 at the age of 52.

There are times when the emphasis on visual experimentation does not necessarily work in the audience’s favour: if you walk into a Derek Jarman film with a question along the lines of “What’s it about?”, you’re not likely to have a good time. Some of his films are exasperating, some downright boring, but all of them are records of a time, a place and, most importantly, a voice that to this day remains singular and unforgettable.

Reviews are by Bil Antoniou except where noted, with thanks to Barbara Goslawski and Marko Djurdjic for their generous contributions.


Sebastiane (1976)

Jarman’s feature debut, co-directed with Paul Humfress, is a deliciously homoerotic work that still looks dazzling today. Taking his cast to Sardinia and filming taut, sun-drenched bodies in next to no clothing (for the simple reason, he explained, that they had no budget for period costumes), it interprets the life and suffering of the third-century saint Sebastian as a Billy Budd-esque tale of longing and sexual frustration. After being demoted by Diocletian for defending the persecution of Christians during an orgy in the Roman court, Sebastian is sent to a remote outpost where the General who oversees all the randy, bored soldiers madly lust over him. However, Sebastian refuses him on the grounds that there is no love greater than the one he has for God. It’s worth watching just to see gorgeous men naked, but there is a thoughtful artfulness in the way it’s filmed, and a terrific sense of rebellion in the way these men enjoy each other.


Jubilee (1978)

Derek Jarman’s first feature as solo director is still one of his most cherishable films. It’s also an indication of the Alex Cox direction his career could have taken if he hadn’t moved on to his more baroque investigations of the art world in the 1980s. Moreover, it shows that he wasn’t always as heavy handed as his later films would become. There’s a somewhat aimless but rebelliously fun caprice that begins when Elizabeth I asks her alchemist to show her the future. He takes her four hundred years forward to a modern-day London in which punk gangs cause mayhem on the streets of London, with scenes of angrily shouted manifestos interrupted by the odd performance by the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees. The cast is a veritable Who’s Who of the rougher side of the art scene who would find more legitimacy later on, including Adam Ant and Chariots of Fire‘s Ian Charleson, as well as Rocky Horror Picture Show cast members Little Nell and Richard O’Brien.


The Tempest (1979)

Jarman adapts one of Shakespeare’s final plays to his eccentric visual style, filming a pared down script at Stoneleigh Abbey, an old country estate in Warwickshire. The magician Prospero lives isolated with his daughter Miranda, servant Caliban and the odd visit from the fey Ariel, banished there by the treachery of his Milanese Duke brother Antonio. Conjuring up a storm to bring his estranged family as well as the King of Naples to his shores, he plots revenge before a climactic reveal. In Jarman’s imagination, this feat involves a performance of Stormy Weather by singer Elisabeth Welch and shows him the value of forgiveness. The director’s visual innovations are often quite stunning, but neither his bold changes or additions of sexual imagery might connect the film with an audience that finds Shakespeare esoteric. Purists, meanwhile, will be put off by the lack of fidelity and those unfamiliar with the text may find themselves frustrated and bored.


The Angelic Conversation (1985)

As images of two men finding their erotic bliss in a relationship play across the screen in perpetual slow motion, the soundtrack delivers a haunting score by Coil and Shakespearean sonnets performed by Judi Dench. Is it daring, challenging and important? Yes. Is it something that is more suited to a museum projection than a movie theatre? Also yes. And is it the very definition of boring? Without a doubt, but this is the film that defines Jarman most clearly as a high-concept artist, which he himself called his “most austere film, but also the closest to my heart”.


Caravaggio (1986)

Marko Djurdjic: Precariously balancing the sacred and profane, Caravaggio tells the life story of its titular protagonist, played as an adult by Nigel Terry and as a young man by Dexter Fletcher, in a nonlinear, poetically and unapologetically queer way. From a punkish boy-prodigy to a renowned artist who boldly employed colour and shadow, Jarman presents Caravaggio’s work, 300 years before the advent of the photographed motion picture, as inherently cinematic. The extended scenes where Caravaggio paints models (including Tilda Swinton in her film debut!) into timeless works are beautiful and languid, with the editing—which flips between the canvas, the subject, and the paint—enhancing the eroticism inherent to the creation of art. Anachronisms, tableaux and paint all flow freely, and Jarman constantly references Caravaggio’s shadowed style, a violent, pronounced use of chiaroscuro known as “tenebrism”, giving the film a decidedly theatrical quality. Jarman never shies away from art, violence, death, or sex (oftentimes simultaneously), and although it is essentially a “biopic,” history isn’t Jarman’s concern here; instead, the historical is about telling us more of time and of art’s place in it then of events or what “really” happened. In Jarman’s Caravaggio, the only truth that matters is the art itself.


The Last of England (1987)

Marko Djurdjic: A desecration of traditions and morality, a visceral indictment of Thatcher-era England, portraying it as a broken, hypocritical nation decomposing under itself. “Cool Britannia” this ain’t, and if there’s any hope to be found, you’ll have to dig through mountains of post-apocalyptic rubble to find it. Jarman bombards us from all sides, aurally, visually, and physically, and you might feel sick after a while from the disorienting barrage of tinted, monochromatic images as they whiz by, but that’s kind of the point. An industrial, nightmarish collage of anger and revolt, the film certainly isn’t for everyone, but for those with patience and curiosity, the dissection of what England “is” will certainly delight and infuriate. The film tackles drugs, sex, violence, death, urban decay, authoritarian aggression, identity politics, history, art, absurdism, the monarchy, and despair because it MUST: all these are essential to and for the story of England, the crumbling empire (and rightly so), and Jarman does well to avoid romanticizing any of it. He poses more questions than answers because it’s the only way to approach such a tumultuous and multifaceted subject. There aren’t any answers, and Jarman knows this. The best ones always do.


War Requiem (1989)

Decca Records allowed Jarman to use a recording of Benjamin Britten’s orchestral work on the condition that it be presented without the interference of dialogue or sound effects, which resulted in this thoughtful examination of the immorality of warfare. Laurence Olivier was pulled out of retirement for one more screen appearance as an old soldier reading the poetry of Wilfred Owen, whose writings inspired Britten’s composition, before we flash back to dramatic inventions of Owen’s service in the war, the experiences of a field nurse played by Tilda Swinton (many of whose scenes are allusions to nurses in the AIDS epidemic) and footage of more modern conflicts including Vietnam and Angola. It never gets out of first gear, the theme as set out at the beginning is never explored in any particularly complex way and at times it feels as if Jarman is killing time to match the score, but it also includes some of the most beautiful images he ever created.


The Garden (1990)

Derek Jarman sits in his garden and conjures up images that speak to his rage over his country’s conservative reaction to the AIDS epidemic.  This hypnotic collage piece features images of the Virgin Mary (Tilda Swinton) and Jesus wandering beneath power lines interspersed with a central narrative of a gay couple, who begin a passionate romance and end up being killed in a manner that likens dying of AIDS to Christ’s crucifixion. The themes are not overtly stated but filtered through Jarman’s high concept imagination, creating a blend of provocative, sometimes gorgeous, sometimes grotesque imagery. The film represents Jarman’s last large-scale project, as his failing health meant his subsequent works would be more stripped down affairs until his death in 1994.


Edward II (1991)

Barbara Goslawski: A pioneering work of the early 1990s’ New Queer Cinema movement and a searing tale of forbidden love.  Jarman audaciously reimagines Christopher Marlowe’s play about the English King’s struggles to protect his favourite courtier, brilliantly transforming an Elizabethan play into a contemporary story of bigotry.  It’s a skillful postmodern revision whose relevance to the filmmaker’s time and place in Thatcher’s England cannot be underestimated.  Starring Steven Waddington as the King, Andrew Tiernan as his paramour and Tilda Swinton as the jilted Queen Isabella, it gives us an urgently modern lovers tale, one that is fierce in its demands for gay rights and riveting in its plea for understanding.  It also skilfully uses anachronism to add currency to its depiction of the cruelty against LGBTQ+ lovers, the most heart wrenching example a collapsing of time to blend in Cole Porter’s own closeted existence during the 1940s with the anti-gay sentiments of Jarman’s own era during the AIDS crisis, including the appearance of singer Annie Lennox, crooning the Cole Porter ballad “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” (the song was also featured on the Red Hot + Blue AIDS awareness Porter tribute album released in 1990).


Wittgenstein (1993)

Barbara Goslawski:  Jarman ingeniously weaves his characteristic wit and stylistic innovation to create an enticingly playful film that is often hilarious. A product of his desire to return to his early non-representational work, this is an innovative biopic on the life and work of queer philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, commissioned by Britain’s Channel Four as part of a series about philosophers and one of the few works to actually be completed and televised.  Heavily reworking the original script by literary critic Terry Eagleton, Jarman uses black backdrops and theatrical tableaux to focus our attention on key moments and relationships in Wittgenstein’s life, and to illuminate his fundamental philosophical ideas.  In using a simple structure, he fashions an atmosphere of whimsy that still manages to reveal much about this thinker’s life (Sandy Powell’s weird and wonderful costume designs shine in this context). Jarman threads in sketches that don’t directly advance the narrative but fill in details of a dynamic personality, expressing quirky details about this man, such as a penchant for Carmen Miranda musicals, even as Wittgenstein articulates complex philosophical theories.  As much as Jarman engages Brechtian distancing tools like direct address in Wittgenstein, there is an engaging push pull between logic and emotion at the heart of this film. Much of the script has a diaristic quality, allowing for insights into the character’s thoughts, which is enchanting even for one who doesn’t know Wittgenstein’s theories.


Blue (1993)

Few cinematic swan songs have had the power of Jarman’s last work, an invitation to the viewer to see the world through the perspective of his body’s disintegration. The director lost his eyesight towards the end of his life and saw only the colour blue, and it is this hue that we see on the screen for the entirety of the film as we listen to a fascinating soundtrack of voices and music, much of it Jarman narrating his own experiences with his illness, other times hearing his frequent collaborators Nigel Terry, Tilda Swinton and John Quentin reading monologues whose themes in some form or other come back to the colour.  Simon Fisher-Turner’s musical score sometimes rages, sometimes murmurs under the voices, while the text is poignant, political, angry, poetic, illustrative and elegant. The whole experience gives a haunting emotional resonance thanks to the colour being cast over you as you watch it. It’s a particularly powerful experience in a movie theatre.


Glitterbug (1994)

After Jarman’s death, home movie footage was assembled for this hour-long film originally broadcast as an episode of the BBC arts program Arena. Images of travel, home, friends, lovers and fellow artists play out under Brian Eno’s evocative score, sometimes the busy and frenetic energy of creation, other times the beauty of nature. A great deal of it is also on-set footage of earlier films like Sebastiane and The Tempest, as well as shots taken from Jarman’s 1971 silent short A Journey to Avebury. Blue was a fitting end for this uncompromising filmmaker, but its weight is relieved somewhat by this celebratory tribute by Jarman’s friends, most notably Tilda Swinton who appears more prominently in the final moments and reveals, wordlessly and in snippets of action to the camera, a deep intimacy with the man behind the lens.