Review: Derek

It lovingly but unadventurously documents the life and art of the late British filmmaker Derek Jarman.


An earnest ode to an outlaw artist, Derek lovingly but unadventurously documents the life and art of the late British filmmaker Derek Jarman. Over the course of the early 1990s interview that makes up the bulk of the film, Jarman identifies the need to “dispel secrecy” as the main thrust behind his work, and the clips culled from his films fiercely capture this sense of societal taboos being cracked open. The spiritual and sexual longing inherent in Sebastiane’s religious imagery, the anarchic spectacle of a demolished punk England in Jubilee, and the blend of home-movie lyricism and Shakespearean somberness in The Angelic Conversation, among others, emerge palpably as the creations of a man whose artistic restlessness and defiant homosexuality made him a perpetual outsider in a society “where sexuality is strangulated.” Jarman recounts his trajectory from wandering art student to queer-cinema maverick with wit and frankness, and sequences dealing with his activism during Margaret Thatcher’s heyday and struggle with AIDS and subsequent blindness are particularly revealing. In between clips, Jarman axiom Tilda Swinton wanders through a glassy, overcast London, lamenting the loss of subversive art via voiceover (“The formula merchants are out in force…Don’t they know the roulette is fixed?”) that would be risible if it weren’t so nakedly heartfelt. It’s a shame, then, that director Isaac Julien, whose previous multimedia tributes to Jarman have imaginatively overlapped the man’s experimentalism with his personality, here presents his story with such generic linearity. Derek is a sincere and succinct snapshot, though its singular subject might have taken issue with its stylistic conventionality.

 Cast: Tilda Swinton, Isaac Julien  Director: Isaac Julien  Screenwriter: Tilda Swinton  Running Time: 76 min  Rating: -  Year: 2008  Buy: Video

Fernando F. Croce

Fernando F. Croce is a San Francisco-based film writer whose work has been published in Film Comment, Reverse Shot, MUBI, and Fandor. He runs the website CinePassion.

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