“Oh how Shakespeare would have loved cinema!” – Derek Jarman
English filmmaker and artist Derek Jarman was an experimental director who used the cinematic medium to explore questions of masculinity and homosexuality. He was an iconoclast who took the necessary risks in order to approach cinema from a non-conventional perspective, connecting a history of injustice to pressing contemporary issues.
Born in Middlesex, England in 1942, Jarman received a proper education and immersed himself in the pursuit of knowledge about his chosen discipline. He studied at King’s College London from 1960, following which he spent four years at University College London’s Slade School of Fine Art. After graduation, Jarman set up his own studio in London in the ’70s.
Jarman was an openly gay man and was an outspoken advocate of gay rights. This conflict became a recurring motif in his artistic endeavours which lashed out against the injustices he saw around him. His personal battle with AIDS made him reflect on his morality and influenced his films, especially his 1993 magnum opus Blue where he reimagined the very definition of what a film is.
The legendary artist would pass away a year later due to an AIDS-related complication at the age of 52. On the 24th anniversary of his death, we revisit his bold filmography as a celebration of his vastly influential contribution to the world of cinema.
Derek Jarman’s 6 definitive films:
6. Jubilee (1978)
Often described as “Britain’s only decent punk film”, Jubilee imagines an alternate timeline where Queen Elizabeth I is transported to a dystopian future by her court alchemist. She skips 400 years and arrives in an apocalyptic wasteland where hedonism and fascism are the dominant sentiments.
Jarman reflected, “I think Jubilee was before its time, because now it seems people are interested in that film again, it seems to be coming back. I don’t know, every country is different. I think the films are most consistently liked in Germany, of all the countries.”
5. Edward II (1991)
Based on Christopher Marlowe’s eponymous play, Jarman’s brilliant 1991 historical drama explores Edward II of England’s obsession with Piers Gaveston. Filmed in a postmodern style with experimental motifs, Jarman used the history of gay oppression to tell the story of Britain’s only acknowledged gay monarch.
Edward II has been declared as one of the essential examples of New Queer Cinema. Jarman used an intersection of modern and historical timelines to launch a powerful commentary on the absurdity of society’s prejudices.
4. The Last of England (1987)
This 1987 masterpiece is a manifestation of Jarman’s anger and frustration. Disillusioned with Margaret Thatcher’s administration and calling it a homophobic, totalitarian regime, Jarman made this arthouse film which uses imagery and poetry to induce anxiety and unabashed paranoia.
Swinton later reflected, “Do you remember Norman Stone calling to arms about us all in the Sunday Times? Saying The Last of England and Sammy and Rosie get Laid and Raining Stones and I can’t remember what else were a damaging and misleading series of slanders on the British character and profile? … those were the days.”
3. Wittgenstein (1993)
Loosely based on the actual life of the endlessly influential philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the script was originally written by literary critic Terry Eagleton. However, Jarman made major changes to the structure and the style in order to create the feeling of a staged production where every scene is suspended in space-time.
While explaining why he went with mise-en-scène that was rich in symbolism, Jarman said: “We never could have afforded his locations so we decided to shoot cheap bright colours against black. I think it turned out rather well, don’t you?”
2. Caravaggio (1986)
This 1986 fictionalised re-telling of the painter’s life is one of Jarman’s most famous films. It is also notable for being the first collaboration between Tilda Swinton and Jarman. Caravaggio remains a powerful reflection on the significance of art and how it shapes personal identity.
Tilda Swinton said of Jarman, “I’ve often thought that the reason he wanted to make films was for the company, that there was something in him that was so gregarious and so valued. He loved being in a group, just as he loved being solitary…he’s telling his own story over and over again. He was the material of his own work.”
1. Blue (1993)
Jarman’s magnum opus was his final feature film, released four months before his death. Due to his battle with AIDS, he had become partially blind and could only visualise things in shades of blue. Jarman decided to translate his experience to the cinematic medium, creating a fascinating experiment which transcended the voyeuristic expectations of what a film is supposed to be. Blue is Jarman’s haunting death rattle.
Jarman explained, ”I wanted to convey some of what I’d seen, and the disaster of which I’ve been living through of the last few years. I mean for instance, last Thursday, I was in the hospital, and there was a mom with a two-year-old child who’s got the same infection in the eyes as I have, I couldn’t…
“I sat and watched as I waited, it was just quite terrible, honestly, you know, I was thinking of this child, you know, that’s all happening and people don’t see it, and they don’t think about it very often, and I hope the film sort of makes people think about that just for a moment.”