Jarman Volume One: 1972-1986 (Limited Edition Blu-ray set) Review
How does one talk about Derek Jarman in any meaningful way? The man was one of the most influential artists and filmmakers of British underground and gay cinema. When I say artist, I mean artist. His last film, Blue, released in 1993 as he was dying of AIDS, has been on display at the at the TATE Modern and the MOMA. His music videos for bands like The Smiths, Pet Shop Boys and The Mighty Lemon Drops have set the standard for experimental short film. Jarman had not only some of the strongest artistic output, but also some of the strangest, and now The BFI has collated five of his earliest films together in the first Volume of a set of collections that provides a comprehensive and exhaustive introduction to one of the most important British filmmakers of the 20th Century.
Included in this collection, we have In the Shadow of the Sun, Jarman's debut film. This is a psychedelic blend of colour and sound that would feel at home projected in an art gallery. The film burns with a creative energy and a fire that is aligned with the sun. At times beautiful and at others unsettling, it is a film to ponder. Next is Sebastiane, a film shot entirely in a dead language. Set during Roman Emperor Diocletian's rule, the titular character (played by Leonardo Treviglio) is exiled to a remote garrison for trying to protect a Christian from being killed.
Though this is only Jarman's second film, Sebastiane is a showcase of all that would become hallmarks of Jarman's cinema. There is religious mysticism in Sebastiane’s pleas to the sun (either the Christian god or Pheobus Apollo) and in reference to Saint Sebastian himself. Plus, the overt sexual themes; especially in the homoerotic, which here includes a long and protracted wrestling scene between two soldiers shot entirely in slow motion. There is also a sense of absurdist humour in the representation of Rome and the fact that the entire script is in Latin.
This mystical theme is then continued in Jubilee. Released in 1978, this film finds Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre) transported to contemporary (and almost apocalyptic) punk Britain run by a camp media mogul alongside occultist Dr. John Dee, and Ariel from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. While not a punk himself Jarman was tied to the mindset and drew from a lot of famous people in the punk scene. The film has cameos from Siouxsie Sioux, Steven Severing, Gene October, Adam Ant and a larger role for Toyah Willcox. While Sebastiane introduced us to Jarman's love of religion and intense interest in gay themes, Jubilee is a biting social commentary. It draws from both the new punk movement seeking to sweep away the old traditions and those still working in those traditions, with mime and theatre actors playing alongside musicians. It draws on history, literature and the feeling of the time to present a wry and strange journey through Britain on Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee.
Next, we dive head first into Elizabethan culture with Jarman's dream-like adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Set entirely in a crumbling mansion - Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire to be precise - it continues on Jubilee’s mocking attitude toward British culture and society. Using Shakespeare and a crumbling building populated again by punks and thespians is an on the nose metaphor but one that still rings true today. Of course, this being Derek Jarman it isn't a straight adaptation, it cuts the text, plays with it, bends it into odd and unpredictable shapes. It is certainly one of the more unique adaptations of Britain’s wordsmith you will ever see.
The fourth film in the collection is The Angelic Conversation which takes Jarman back to his more artistic roots as it depicts the story of two men exploring their desires through photographic images set to Shakespearian sonnets. As integral to Jarman's oeuvre, themes and images of homosexuality are embedded in the art itself, drawing not only on Shakespeare but noted British composer Benjamin Britten. The Angelic Conversation, like In the Shadow of the Sun before it, is less a narrative film and more of a projected art piece, with its experimental construction and poetic exploration of important issues.
The final film in the collection is a dramatisation of the life of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, appropriately entitled Caravaggio. Shot in the same painterly way the artist Caravaggio put brush to canvas, with a cast comprising of Nigel Terry, Dexter Fletcher, Michael Gough and Sean Bean. It would begin the frequent collaboration between the filmmaker and Tilda Swinton. Caravaggio plays with time and the space we take for granted in much the same way Jarman did with his Tempest. Similarly Jarman inserts his homosexual themes into the film, allowing for an exploration of himself as an artist through the works of Caravaggio. This is a great end to a selection of films that obviously build on each other to create one of the most compelling author profiles in recent memory, albeit only in the first volume.
The sheer amount of extras that the BFI have put on this disc is mind boggling. There are interviews with cast and crew members, short films, alternative cuts, film segments, trailers, storyboards and a booklet containing writing on Jarman and his films. I said before that this collection was extensive, well with five films running to a total of 515 minutes (not including extras) and the same amount of time dedicated to extras you have more than enough content in this collection. The only thing that one could say is lacking is any substantial documentary or introduction to the man himself; it would have been great to have a documentary included about Derek Jarman. Similarly, more audio commentary would have been welcome for the more opaque films, introducing us to the time that they were made and production methods. However, understandably, the BFI have suggested that the work speaks for itself and the man behind them.
Aside from extras the BFI have done a masterful job in the transfer of these obscure films to high definition Blu-ray. All are presented in flawless 1080p with 24 frames per second play back and a PCM 2.0 mono audio soundtrack running at 48kHz. There are no audio or visual errors on these films that isn't intentional. Similarly the BFI provide subtitles for the hard of hearing which are available on all of the films in English and optional English subtitles for the film in Latin. While the menu is a little bare, it gets the job done as it is user-friendly and it is easy to navigate.
It is clear that this collection is made for a specific sort of audience. Derek Jarman’s work - while a creative force for artistic good for British and LGBTQ+ cinema - has a niche appeal. If you are interested in Jarman and haven't seen any of his films I recommend taking it a movie at a time, as while his work can be beautiful, it can be a little odd and distracting. If you are an already converted Jarman-fan then this the collection for you, beautifully presenting some of the most evocative art in British cinema.