Culture House Daily

Derek Jarman: no characterisation, no narrative, no poetry – no good

10 March 2014

A week or two ago, author Philip Hoare wrote an article for the Independent, describing Derek Jarman as ‘a modern-day John Dee, the Elizabethan alchemist’, ‘an Edwardian Andy Warhol, a Victorian Jean Cocteau’ (huh?), and, inevitably, ‘a national treasure’.

It’s symptomatic of the way that artists, writers and celebrities of a certain age haven’t been able to stop themselves gushing over his vision, his garden in Dungeness and how absolutely lovely he was. They don’t ever talk about his films, though – and with good reason.

Maybe I’m missing something marvellous, but I’ve just suffered Blue, Jarman’s self-conscious Definitive Artistic Statement, for the third time in five years. If you’ve never had the pleasure, here’s the deal: for its entire 79 minute duration, the screen is filled by a wash of the titular colour as actors read out deeply serious monologues.

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Consensus insists that it’s his best film, and for once I agree. After all, it spares us actually having to watch it. It was released in December 1993, just three months before his horrific, AIDS-related death. As such it’s doubtless beyond the boundaries of taste to slag it off. But, God, it’s dull.

Blue is Jarman raffiné, but he did bad taste, too. With the exception of the risible climax of his heroically contrived take on Marlowe’s Edward II (brought together, red hot pokers and bad acting have hilarious consequences), the risqué stuff manages to be even more boring.

Just try watching Jubilee and you’ll get some idea of what I’m on about. At my university, it was pretty much obligatory to own it on DVD, but I’m willing to bet that I’m in a very small minority who took the cellophane wrapping off the case.

In fairness, Jarman isn’t the only unwatchable 1980s art house director who gets an easy ride – Peter Greenaway and Terrence Davies, to name names, remain criminally revered. The trouble is, as a high-profile AIDS victim, he’s untouchable – utter the slightest criticism and you’re immediately a monster.

Derek Jarman’s death was tragic – but it doesn’t make his adaptation of The Tempest any less bloody awful than New York Times critic Vincent Canby judged it in a spot-on review from 1980:

‘It’s full of impertinent inspirations without a single interesting or especially coherent idea… there are no poetry, no ideas, no characterisation, no narrative and no fun.’

A pretty accurate summary of a career, I’d say.

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Show comments
  • Doggie Roussel

    Just another fraud, like Warhol, Kerouac and Jackson Pollock… the emperor’s new clothes …

  • Michael H Kenyon

    Jarman was routinely pretentious pish, and his fan club routinely desperate wannabes. He may have been an interesting intellectual in an 80s lefty radical sort of way (i.e., not very interesting really) – but with the exception of his “Wittgenstein”, his films were truly dire.

  • Kitty MLB

    Yes, he made a pigs ear of the Tempest, unforgivable!
    To be quite honest, I am not one for films generally ( only foreign language occasionally) I also get annoyed with non- English actors playing the lead in
    English classic film adaptions. ( and No I have not an issue with foreign people)
    Yet that doesn’t mean I have no patience for watching someone’s creation
    nothing is compared to the beauty of midsummer’s night dream on
    a magical evening or Hamlet acted in a castle ( in Wales or Scotland, apologies puritans) and yes indeed in a dark atmospheric theatre.
    Mind you never say never, an interesting film might pop up.

  • post_x_it

    Many years ago I picked up a couple of volumes of his diaries in a second-hand bookshop and really enjoyed reading them. Then I watched some of his films and was shocked by what utter, unmitigated, unwatchable rubbish they are. As a personality he was clearly more interesting than his work.

  • Swanky

    I never watch films any more, though I made an exception for Gods And Generals and Gettsyburg and ended up crying through half of one of them. I keep hearing how good this film is and how meaningful that film is. I have a look. It’s a waste of time and I turn it off. And the idea of actually going to a theatre: forget it! Too many hours sitting in dark spaces with strangers asking myself ‘why am I here?’ I made an exception for Manhattan Murder Mystery and laughed through the whole thing, but otherwise I haven’t watched a movie in public in over 20 years.

    Films are for a different sort of human being, I think.

    • Shorne

      Let us hope that “Last Full Measure” will eventually make it to the screen.

      I remember seeing Jarman interviewed once and he was giggling about how he nearly got a shot of an erect penis into his inexpressibly tedious film about St. Sebastian. I thought at the time if he’s that keen on the idea all he needs to do is pop down the Gent’s loo at Charing Cross mainline station where, unfortunately in my opinion, he could see lots of them being brandished.

  • Cornelius Bonkers

    Mmmm! I wonder if Sean Bean knew about Mr J’s preferences before he agreed to appear in one of his films? It shows what a great actor he must be if he survived starring in such appalling rubbish…

  • rodliddle

    Absolutely right in every regard. Awful, awful films. I once saw him interviewed, slagging off John Updike. I wonder who will be remembered.

    • Doggie Roussel

      Are you the Rod Liddle ?

      I do hope so and I completely agree… in fact I visited the shrine to Jarman at Dungeness not long ago and took great pleasure in urinating on his pretentiously ugly garden.

    • Doggie Roussel

      The rabbit, maybe….

  • FrankieThompson

    I remember sitting watching The Draughtsman’s Contract in the 1980’s , and thinking it was a steaming pile, but telling others that I thought it was great.

    A source of deep shame.

    • gerontius

      I also told others I thought it was great. Trouble is I meant it.
      Probably best not to watch it again though. (Worried that I might still enjoy it).
      I remember enjoying all of Greenaways films come to think of it. Except The Baby of Macon – the only film I have ever seen that manage to turn my stomach.

    • Whyshouldihavetoregister

      I thought ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’ was about the effect of cold on an artist’s testicles until I watched it; then I realised that, rather than being about artistic balls, it was artistic balls.

  • Jambo25

    He was gay and died of Aids so he is, obviously a combination of Christ and Leonardo. Any mere criticism of his bloody awful pictures marks you out as being a vile homophobe.

    • Doggie Roussel

      Amen !… anyone for a spot of tennis… oops, buggery ?

      • Jambo25

        Possibly one thing you and I will agree on is the awfulness of Jarman’s films.

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