The Angelic Conversation Review
In the early 1970s, two things happened to change Derek Jarman’s life and career. Firstly, Ken Russell invited him to be the production designer on The Devils. At the time, Jarman was exclusively a painter, and had had no intention of entering the film industry. Secondly, he was given a Super 8mm camera. He took to the medium straight away, shooting with the small format whenever he could. By the end of the decade, Jarman had begun to make films for theatrical exhibition, but in between he would continue to experiment with Super 8. In the middle of the following decade, when financing for his more conventional (relatively speaking) narrative features – especially his dream project Caravaggio - became hard to find, he began making non-narrative features on even tinier budgets. The Angelic Conversation was the first of these, shot for the most part with a crew of three (Jarman, producer James Mackay and an assistant) and a principal cast of two.
The Angelic Conversation began with Jarman’s friendship with John Balance and Peter Christopherson of the band Coil, and his desire to collaborate with them on a film. Hearing that Peter Greenaway had been commissioned by Channel 4 to make A TV Dante (his interpretation of The Divine Comedy), Jarman proposed to make his own film based on Shakespeare’s sonnets. In particular, he concentrated on the half of the sonnets addressed to an unnamed young man, which many have taken as one of the finest expressions of male homosexual love in the English language. As Jarman points out, it’s exactly the sort of thing that Thatcher’s government would have tried to outlaw under Clause 29, if it were published nowadays.
As with his later films - The Last of England, War Requiem, Blue - you’ll search in vain for any kind of plot in The Angelic Conversation. Like Kenneth Anger’s earlier work – a clear influence on Jarman as he acknowledges in the interview on this DVD – it’s best appreciated as a visual poem, a play of image and sound. The only words in the film are those of Shakespeare, read by Judi Dench. The remainder of the soundtrack is Coil’s music, plus a section of Benjamin Britten’s “Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes. One difference is that Anger’s work, enchanting, disturbing and powerful by turns, is short, never more than forty-five minutes. It’s entirely possible to admire Jarman the man – struggling to express his own distinctive vision in the face of considerable opposition, not to mention terminal illness – without caring much for his work. Like most of his non-narrative films, at feature length The Angelic Conversation - many striking images apart – is something of an endurance test. Committed Jarman fans might well adjust my rating upwards.
The Angelic Conversation is one of three Jarman films released on DVD by the BFI. The others are Caravaggio and Wittgenstein, and like those DVDs, this one is encoded for Region 2 only.
Given that The Angelic Conversation was shot on Super 8, transferred to video by projecting the film onto a white screen and recording the results (telecine was beyond the project’s budget), before being blown up to 35mm for theatrical release, you’ll understand that it is hard to rate this film visually. Needless to say it’s as grainy as you’d expect and contrast is distinctly lacking. I haven’t seen this film in a cinema, though I have others of Jarman’s, and I’m quite prepared to believe that this is exactly as it is intended to look. The transfer is in the original 4:3 aspect ratio and is therefore not anamorphically enhanced.
The soundtrack is Dolby Surround, though the surrounds are used more or less for music only. Apart from that there are some sound effects, such as a ship’s foghorn and the sea lapping on a shore. Dench’s readings of the sonnets are very clear, though evidently recorded with a fair amount of reverb. Subtitles are available for the feature and extras in English, and in Dutch for the feature only.
The BFI have provided some well-chosen extras. First off are a couple of newly-recorded interviews. Production designer Christopher Hobbs (5:32), a longtime collaborator, describes how Jarman came to use a Super 8mm camera, and how they would sometimes shoot in a disused warehouse next to Jarman’s then flat in Butlers Wharf on the Thames, often involving the two of them and whichever friends happened to be along. Producer James Mackay (10:45) talks about his long collaboration with Jarman, their roots in his personality, and the logistics of making feature films on “non-professional” equipment on minuscule budgets. He ends with a funny story about how Jarman’s book Dancing Ledge got its name.
Jarman himself appears in an interview with Simon Field (32:16) at the ICA in 1986 (not 1989, as it says on the back cover). This is a wide-ranging talk that covers most of Jarman’s career up to that point. With twenty years of hindsight, Jarman is very prescient about the possibilities of Super 8, and many of his predictions about cinema exhibition are coming true. Interestingly, Jarman regards himself as essentially a conservative filmmaker, not a radical one.
The remaining extra on the disc is a stills gallery, comprising nine black and white images. However, the DVD includes a booklet which contains a two-page essay by Colin McCabe on The Angelic Conversation, a four-page Jarman biography by Jason Wood, a single page by Peter Christopherson of Coil, and ten pages reproducing Tilda Swinton’s “open letter to Derek” that she delivered at Vertigo magazine’s memorial at the 2002 Edinburgh Film Festival. Finally there is a fold-out of colour photographs taken by James Mackay during the shooting of The Angelic Conversation.
Of the three BFI releases, this is probably the one least recommended to Jarman newcomers: best to start with Caravaggio or Wittgenstein, which are for all their eccentricities, reasonably conventional narratives. Established fans will certainly want to buy The Angelic Conversation, and there’s no question of the quality of the DVD package that the BFI have put together.