The late British filmmaker and artist Derek Jarman was a true renaissance man. Born out of the punk era and possessing much of the same anarchic spirit of that movement, Jarman’s films, no matter the actual subject matter or approach, were always at their core subversive and often brilliant works of art.
Sadly, many of Jarman’s films have never been commercially available while several were released briefly on VHS some years ago. Up until now, only Kino’s excellent release of Jarman’s “The Tempest” and a Japanese import of “Edward II” were available on DVD. Recently, however, Kino has released his debut feature Sebastiane and the folks at Criterion have graced us with a 25th Anniversary Special Edition of Jarman’s seminal “Jubilee”.
Hardly a household name in his native UK or especially here in the United States, his films deal quite specifically with issues personal to Jarman. His brazen use of graphic sex and unapologetic treatment of subjects such as homosexuality, AIDS and matters directly relatable to British Society are what equally made Jarman such a unique cinematic voice and prevented his films from breaking through to any significant audience outside of serious cinephiles. Upon revisiting his films it becomes clearer what a shame this truly is. Taken in the context of the time that his films were made and the similarity both socially and politically in the UK and US in the late 70’s and 80’s and it is almost amazing how relevant his films could have been and should be.
Jarman’s sophomore film “Jubilee”, is a Molotov Cocktail of celluloid – a film that practically dares you to watch it. Queen Elizabeth I is transported 400 years into the future by her royal astrologer. Arriving in late 20th century England she is confronted with a post-apocalyptic, debauched wasteland. Society as she knows it has collapsed and Britain is run by an evil media mogul, gangs roam the streets and sex of all kinds is everywhere. Basically, a giant filmed “F**k You” to Margaret Thatcher, the royal family and the times in general. Jarman’s visual flair becomes even more apparent. His technique as a filmmaker, garish colors and costumes, unreal settings, another Eno score on a shoestring budget defies logic. It looks and is to this day amazing. The theme of the decline of British society – one which he would often revisit, explodes in every frame. In short, the film is punk… and a young Adam Ant is in it if that helps sell ya.
Criterion’s 25th Anniversary Edition disc features a bunch of extras among which are the theatrical trailer, Jarman’s scrapbook from the film and an essay by Jarman biographer Tony Peake. The key extra and a true gem is the short documentary “Jubilee: A Time Less Golden” which contains interviews with friends, collaborators and cast members from the film and manages to offer some insight into Jarman’s work (however I would highly recommend reading Jarman’s many autobiographical books and the letter to Derek from Tilda Swinton on the Criterion home page – www.criterionco.com – if you are a fan).
The filmography of Derek Jarman is like a visual accompaniment to the Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the UK” and while towards the end of his life he became a bit more reflective on life he never became boring. Jarman died of AIDS in 1994. That said his films are definitely to a particular taste. Narrative is often waylaid in favor of visual manifestoes, however many of these visuals will stay with you even years after you have seen the film. Not for the squeamish, homophobic or those who only go to the movies on Memorial Day weekend. Kudos to Criterion for not only releasing, but showing such care and hopefully we can expect more – perhaps “The Last of England”, “War requiem” and “Wittgenstein”… if you are listening Criterion – coming somewhere down the road.
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