The Garden Review

Gary Couzens has reviewed Artificial Eye’s Region 2 release of Derek Jarman’s The Garden, one of its directors later, more experimental works, most likely to appeal to fans only. The disc is one of its distributor’s more basic sets, and is disappointingly non-anamorphic.

The Garden is a loosely-linked series of episodes with no real “plot” as such, filmed largely around Derek Jarman’s cottage and garden at Dungeness. However, one strand of the film is an interpretation of the life of Jesus. In a typically Jarmanesque touch, Mary Magdalene is a man (Spencer Leigh). Meanwhile, two male lovers are married and arrested and attacked by authorities.

Throughout his career, Derek Jarman alternated narrative features with more experimental non-narrative ones, shot on even tinier budgets than the pitiful ones he was usually accorded. Many of these films were shorts, of which Jarman made a great number, but The Angelic Conversation (1985), an interpretation of Shakespeare’s sonnets, was feature-length and had a cinema release. After the long-planned and comparatively conventional Caravaggio, Jarman made The Last of England, a splenetic outburst at the state of the country where he was born but which frequently thwarted him. In the last half-decade of his life such plotless films dominated his output, often shot quickly and cheaply on Super 8mm. War Requiem seemed sadder, and The Garden seems mellower still. Jarman knew his days were numbered – he had been HIV-positive for some years – but he continued to work at a furious rate. He completed two more narrative features (Edward II and Wittgenstein) before making his “final” non-narrative work, Blue, a collage of voice and sound against an unvarying blue screen attributed to his then-failing sight. He died in 1994.

Like the works of Kenneth Anger, clearly a huge influence on Jarman (and where’s the DVD of the Magick Lantern Cycle?), The Garden works more as a series of images, accompanied by very little dialogue, some voiceovers and a score from Simon Fisher Turner. There are references to the two most notable gardens in the Bible, Eden and Gethsemane. Elemental images, fire and water notably, contrast with images of authoritarianism and repression. All very serious stuff, but at times you have to wonder if Jarman is being more than a little tongue in cheek. In the early stages of the film, a man in full gay-clone gear (moustache, peaked cap, leather chaps and chains) crawls across the beach. And the film is not above sheer camp. There’s a whole sequence where Jessica Martin sings “Think Pink” (originally from Funny Face) and the screen virtually bursts with the colour: flowers, the two male lovers’ suits, Martin’s dress, not to mention pink-tinted footage of gay rights marches. That final touch is perhaps a little too obvious.

I’ll confess straight away that I’m not a Jarman fan, and anyone who is should adjust my score accordingly. Certainly this is not a film to introduce people to his works, and anyone expecting a conventional narrative, or any kind of story at all, should certainly look elsewhere. I can only admire Jarman the man, making his own films on his own terms and with his own distinctive vision with pitiful budgets, in the face of considerable opposition, official and personal, not to mention terminal illness. How you respond to the results, it’s good to see one of England’s most singular film directors represented on DVD over a decade after his death.

This review is based on a checkdisc and a copy of the cover slick. The latter may of course not be entirely representative of the finished version, but the one I saw claims the disc is “enhanced for widescreen TVs”. It isn’t. The Garden comes to DVD in non-anamorphic 1.66:1. There’s an ongoing debate in DVD circles as to whether any ratio narrower than 1.78:1 (16:9) needs to be anamorphic – arguable for 1.66:1, certainly not for 1.33:1 – I’m not entirely convinced that that is the intended aspect ratio. Compositionally the film looked fine zoomed to 16:9, so it may well be that 1.75:1 was the intended ratio for cinema viewing. As for the picture quality, given the distinctly lo-fi original materials, this will never be a reference quality DVD transfer, and some sequences are definitely very grainy and soft. But others do show up well: the pinks in the “Think Pink” section are suitably lurid. The transfer does tend to be on the soft side, but all things considered you wonder if anamorphic enhancement would have added much.

The seems to be a direct port of the original Dolby SR mix. It’s presented in Dolby Surround – i.e. Dolby Digital 2.0 that plays as a four-track surround track in Dolby Prologic. There’s very little dialogue, but Simon Fisher Turner’s score is quite immersive, and there are some notable uses of directional sound. As always with their English-language DVDs, Artificial Eye hasn’t seen the necessity for any subtitles. There may be little dialogue in this film, but do music and sound effects not matter for the hard-of-hearing? There are twelve chapter stops. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 only.

”Making of The Garden” is a documentary that appears to have been made for Japanese television: certainly the names of interviewees are spelled out in Japanese lettering as well as English and at one point Jarman apologises if he’s not making himself understood. Otherwise this is the usual making-of material: behind-the-scenes shots mixed with interviews and clips from the finished film. The featurette seems to have been transferred from a rather poor VHS source, laden with artefacts. Still, it will be of value to Jarman aficionados. It’s in non-anamorphic 16:9 and runs 43:39.

The extras are concluded by a fifteen-image stills gallery, all in colour and credited to Liam Daniel, and biographies of Jarman, Tilda Swinton and producer James Mackay.

This is a DVD of more specialised interest than most, but Jarman fans will be glad to have it available. Extras are limited but not without use.


Updated: Apr 14, 2005

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