‘Derek Jarman Volume One: 1972-1986’ Blu-Ray reviewed

❉ Derek Jarman’s enduring legacy is celebrated in this lavish box set, containing his first six features alongside an exciting array of new and archival extras.

Derek Jarman never really set out to become a film maker.  He was first and foremost an artist who gradually drifted into film at a time when British film was going into what some would argue was a sharp decline as it failed to adapt to the realities of the 1970s marketplace.  This retrospective box set traces the first six films.  Straddling the decline of British film through to its renaissance in the mid 1980’s.  It is also instructive in Illustrating how Jarman himself developed as a director.

Jarman began working in film using a super 8 camera, essentially to document some of the work he was involved in and as a kind of moving sketchbook depicting London and his trips into the countryside.  Between 1972 & 1974 this became his first film, In The Shadow Of The Sun.  Shots are imposed over each other and Jarman seems to revel in the limitations of the film leaving in scratches and over exposures.  It has a dreamy very psychedelic feel and seems like it could only be the work of an artist experimenting with film whilst fellow travellers of the artistic avant-garde, Throbbing Gristle provide a strangely menacing soundtrack.

Sebastiane, Jarman’s next project, is by most considered his first proper film and its arrival in 1975 was met with considerable controversy.  Telling the story of St Sebastian, Jarman presents the work in latin and revels in the beauty of the male body throughout.  The film caused a stir at the time but both the original and the alternative cut (included in the extras here) show a director still very much working in the realms of experimental film.  That said, it’s still a step forward in structure and seeing the alternative cut really does go to illustrate the possibility of a very different feel to the film.

Jarman’s next two films show a side rarely seen in his later work.  Anyone whose ever seen interviews would be aware of a humour his later films never reflected but both Jubilee and The Tempest demonstrate that element, which also reflected throughout the recollections of the people who worked with him in the extras here.

Jubilee was one of the first punk movies and although many of those at its centre have been quite dismissive of it despite the fact that its cast includes Jordan who was very much a part of McLaren and Westwood’s Sex shop.  If it is punk, then it’s very much from the art punk end of the spectrum.  Watching it some 40 years later it feels much more commentary on Britain itself and the mentality of the time.  It feels very much a timepiece and that is largely because the film’s real star (despite a memorably deranged performance for Richard O’Brien) is the London it’s filmed in.  Compared to the increasingly sanitised London of today this landscape feels like something decayed and apocalyptic.  Other filmmakers who have depicted London in this way in the past decade but they required set designers whereas Jarman just had to switch on the camera.

The Tempest followed this and again it feels oddly sensible to have made this film at a time when Britain seemed in the midst of some kind of political tempest of its own.  Jarman creates a world which fits the somewhat surreal dreamlike atmosphere and plays the whole thing out as a strange mixture of the modern and the original.   Jarman’s choice of using a very classical version of the text makes it more of a challenge to begin with but there are some very fine performances.  The biggest surprise of all being Toyah Wilcox playing a punk Miranda and pulling it off with aplomb.  Whilst the interiors are filled with bold colour and magical signs, the exterior echoes that of Jubilee and thoughts that this little island is a little Britain.  For all its irreverence it is surprising faithful to its source and flecked with moments of fun rarely seen in much of Jarman’s work.

At the time of making The Tempest the British film industry headed into a state of collapse and Jarman, like many, found the money to make film completely impossible to secure.  He made a number of attempts to get films off the ground but without success.  There’s a short film of a Throbbing Gristle gig (which is as sonically challenging as one might hope) and very little else as Jarman made ends meet directing an eclectic mix of videos.   His film career was on hold until Channel Four’s creation came to the rescue of many filmmakers.

The first fruits of this was Angelic Conversation, which Jarman himself once described as a “77 minute wank movie”.  This is probably the most homoerotic of all his films focusing on the male form and its beauty.  It feels very much like a long form pop video – if such things contained 14 Shakespeare sonnets read by Judi Dench, excerpts from Britten’s Peter Grimes, and a sonic soundscape by Throbbing Gristle offshoot Coil.  Depending on your feelings about such things it is either tedium or mesmerisingly beautiful.

The final film in this box set is probably the most conventionally plotted and effective film.  Based on the life and works of the artist, Caravaggio is not a conventional biopic but more a meditation on art and its creation with a terrific performance from Nigel Terry as the artist himself at its centre.  Whilst the voiceover drifts into meditations there is a much stronger narrative and also the first signs of Jarman’s remarkable ability to conjure up impressive looking surroundings on a very low budget.

Caravaggio is the first of what would become a succession of films which feel deeply personal.  It’s part homage and part strange love story, giving a young Sean Bean a chance to show a side to his talents few have subsequently tapped into, and also a wonderful introduction to one of the most original of artists.

Derek Jarman never was bothered by convention and this box set of the first half of his cinematic work isn’t always easy watching.  This is the work of a voice very much working without others around him, an original and one who paved the way for queer voices to find a louder voice, and bigger place, in film.  It’s a very worthwhile celebration.

❉ ‘Jarman Volume One: 1972 – 1986’ was released 26 March 2018 by BFI. Cat. no. BFIB1301. Cert 18. RRP: £59.99. Running time:  515 mins (+ extras). For full list of special features, read our news post. Order now from the BFI Shop.

❉ Jarman Volume Two: 1987-1993 will be released by the BFI later in 2018.

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