Derek Jarman

Director Derek JarmanMichael Derek Elworthy Jarman was by no means the first openly homosexual filmmaker but his influence on a subsequent generation of New Queer Cinema auteurs was primary. Never one to sidestep controversy, Jarman’s radical expressions of desire and freedom ran inseparably through his life and art. If his fiercest ire was reserved for his native England, that surely owed to his deep-seated romance with the country’s myths of nobility. Born in Norwood in 1942 to a Royal Air Force pilot and his wife, Jarman itinerant childhood went with empire; his family lived as far away as India in Her Majesty’s service.

Jarman’s first sexual experiences with another boy at boarding school were met with severe punishment, arguably his first taste of the repression that would fuel his indignant art. Jarman studied fine arts at the Slade School in the liberating atmosphere of Swinging London and enjoyed early success in painting. Restless, he entered the London film world as a production designer for Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS (1971) and SAVAGE MESSIAH (1972). Jarman began shooting film himself in Super 8, a practice he maintained throughout his life. The small-gauge camera suited Jarman’s diaristic impulses and many of his later works (as well as his numerous short films) incorporated footage from these offhanded explorations.

Jarman’s first feature, SEBASTIANE (1976), was an unabashedly hedonistic reading of Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom. Shot on a miniscule budget and scripted in Latin, the debut attracted attention for its bold vision of erotic freedom and its repression. Jarman’s sophomore effort, JUBILEE (1978), was a more direct provocation of Britain’s status quo. The film imagines Queen Victoria witnessing the deeply ingrained malaise of a then nascent punk movement. In a typically sharp turn, Jarman followed this visionary work with a freely anachronistic adaption of THE TEMPEST (1979). During the years that followed, he struggled to write and fund CARAVAGGIO (1986), a film many regard as his masterpiece. Jarman lent his lush visual sensibility to music videos by Marianne Faithfull, The Smiths and Pet Shop Boys, among others. With THE LAST OF ENGLAND (1988), he economically fused 8mm fragments and dense aural collage for a poetic summons of rage against Margaret Thatcher’s rule.

Jarman was diagnosed with HIV in 1986, something he made public long before it was common to do so. Along with Thatcher’s third term, the diagnosis was the bad news that spurred Jarman to even greater productivity. He painted, published books, planned a characteristically original garden at his Dungeness home and redoubled his efforts as an activist. He also produced six feature films over his last seven years, including EDWARD II (1991), a nervy adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s eponymous play, and WITTGENSTEIN (1993), a beautifully refined life of the philosopher realized in tableaux. Jarman produced his final work, BLUE (1993), when he was losing his eyesight. A devastating rumination on mortality, the film is comprised solely of poetic monologues, music and a non-negotiable monochrome image. Jarman viewed his art as the opportunity to risk honesty to the end and this last testament was as unsparing as any of his films. After his death in 1994, Jarman’s close associates fashioned some of his remaining 8mm effects into GLITTERBUG (1994), a loving portrait of Jarman’s vibrancy as a creator and icon. It would not be the last posthumous tribute to this artist who burnished his aesthetics and politics with something like a spiritual passion. – Max Goldberg


Recent Reviews


Produced by Tariq Ali. Directed by Derek Jarman. Written by Terry Eagleton. Insofar as "pretentious" is intended to mean affecting an intellect that one does not actually possess, the last...


An arty film aimed to make the audience feel stupid. Pretentious, minimal sets, constantly smashed fourth wall--why should we care about these people? Just dreadful. You could go to Wikipedia...

The Angelic Conversation

While I am a Derek Jarman fan, The Angelic Conversation is my least favorite of his feature length films· I have watched it several times both using my personal dvd...




Somewhat cartoonish view of the great philosopher's unhappy life. The lead actor did a very good job in portraying his character, but the rest of the script was too bad...