Ranked: All of Derek Jarman’s feature films, including Dench, Swinton, and Biggins.

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11. The Angelic Conversation (1985)

Judi Dench performs 14 of Shakespeare’s sonnets in a 77-minute film filled with homoerotic visuals. Accompanied by compositions from Benjamin Britten and the experimental band Coil, this movie is a romantic and dreamy experience. Though it may not have the same impact as Jarman’s most powerful queer films, which expressed both rage and beauty in their defiance against oppression, Dench’s readings and the hazy imagery complement each other perfectly.

10. Jubilee (1978)

The story follows Elizabeth I (played by Jenny Runacre) as she travels through time to punk-era Britain. She is shocked to find a society that is desperate and violent, as portrayed in Jarman’s controversial second film. While the film may be chaotic and disorganized, with mixed reviews (even Vivienne Westwood disliked it), the unique casting choices (including Toyah Willcox and Adam Ant) and standout scenes (such as Malcolm McLaren’s protégé Jordan’s stunning performance of Rule Britannia) provide some enjoyment amidst the chaos.

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9. The Garden (1990)

Jarman’s physical condition was declining at the time he created this profoundly intimate experimental film. The film was shot at Prospect Cottage and his renowned garden on the ethereal coast of Dungeness, Kent, where he spent his last years. Using Super 8 film, it presents a lyrical portrayal of Jarman’s contemplations on queerness in the 20th century, intertwined with religious symbolism that can be both unsettling and jubilant.

Michael Gough and Tilda Swinton in Wittgenstein

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8. Wittgenstein (1993)

Jarman’s most humorous movie is a lighthearted and whimsical exploration of episodes from the life of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Karl Johnson delivers a witty performance as Wittgenstein, a lovable and cantankerous eccentric who engages in philosophical debates with John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell, and even a lively Martian. Jarman also presents Wittgenstein’s struggle with his own homosexuality. Overall, it is an enjoyable but lesser work in Jarman’s body of films.

7. Caravaggio (1986)

Jarman’s film, which is considered one of his best works, explores the life of Italian painter Caravaggio (played by Nigel Terry). It showcases impressive performances from Sean Bean, Dexter Fletcher, and Tilda Swinton, who would go on to collaborate with Jarman multiple times. The film also beautifully captures Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro.

The Tempest

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6. The Tempest (1979)

Jarman’s adaptation of The Tempest stands out for its playful approach to Shakespeare. Jack Birkett delivers a comedic performance as Caliban, while Christopher Biggins impresses as the drunken seaman Stephano. Amidst all the campiness, the film features a beautiful musical number – a stunning rendition of Stormy Weather by Elisabeth Welch, performed to a captivated audience of sailors.

5. Sebastiane (1976)

Jarman began his journey with his sensual interpretation of the story of Saint Sebastian, who was martyred and banished to a distant military outpost where he becomes the desire of the intimidating male soldiers. The story is narrated in Latin with English subtitles, focusing on the male form through an openly homosexual viewpoint. This was a groundbreaking moment in British cinema.


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4. Blue (1993)

When Jarman completed his last film, he was partially blind due to complications from AIDS. In response, he produced his most avant-garde piece, a 79-minute continuous shot featuring a blue background. In this film, Jarman reflects on life and the approaching end of his life, with narration by some of his regular collaborators and music by Simon Fisher Turner. The result is a deeply affecting viewing experience.

3. War Requiem (1989)

Jarman’s combination of Benjamin Britten’s choral piece and dramatized reenactments of wartime tragedy, accompanied by archival footage from World War I, is truly impressive. Swinton delivers a haunting, wordless portrayal of a nurse impacted by the war, and it is poignant to note that this film marks the last on-screen appearance of Laurence Olivier. The poetic depiction of the atrocities of war and allusions to poet Wilfred Owen make this a fitting companion to Terence Davies’ Benediction (2021).

2. The Last of England (1987)

Jarman’s brutal criticism of Thatcher’s England continues to be shocking today. The film portrays England as a totalitarian nightmare through unsettling and frequently violent scenes. The final scene, which shows a screaming and grieving bride (played by Swinton) tearing off her wedding dress, is especially unsettling. While the film may be difficult to watch, it is an important one; its portrayal of a cruel and declining Britain serves as a cautionary tale from a not-so-distant time.

Annie Lennox

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1. Edward II (1991)

Jarman’s adaptation of Edward II by Christopher Marlowe displays his talents in a lively and creative approach to a timeless play. Despite being limited by a modest budget, Jarman’s film boldly celebrates homosexual intimacy while also addressing his contempt for societal homophobia. The inclusion of an army of gay activists and a romantic ballad by Annie Lennox adds anachronistic elements that enhance the film’s impact. Additionally, the film diverges from the gruesome torture and murder of the source material, providing a rare happy ending for its queer protagonists in a landscape of often tragic queer cinema.

Source: theguardian.com

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