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

10 March 2014

10:33 AM

10 March 2014

10:33 AM

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.

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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