The Angelic Conversation (1985)The Angelic Conversation (1985)
​Shakespeare Lives in Film
23 July 2016

Film Poetics

Derek Jarman had incurred the wrath of the British establishment by the time he embarked on the first of two Shakespeare adaptations, both of which are screening as part of the British Council sponsored Shakespeare Lives retrospective at New Horizons.

After a series of dazzling shorts, as well as his stunning set designs for Ken Russell's The Devils (1971), Jarman directed two provocative features back-to-back. 1976's Sebastiane presented the story of one man's Christian beliefs and carnal desires through a homo-erotic prism, outraging the Church of England, conservatives across the UK and making the director the art world's Public Enemy No. 1. Two years later, he directed one of the great punk films, Jubilee (1978). All anger and attitude, it presented Britain as an apocalyptic landscape - one unrecognisable to Queen Elizabeth I, who has been transported through time to it. By the time he came to make The Tempest (1979), no other director attracted so much ire and acclaim.

The surprise - Jarman's entire career is one of surprises, both shocking and pleasant - with The Tempest is that for all the structural changes the director makes to the play, the adaptation remains a glorious celebration of Shakespeare's rich language. It's no surprise that the film is visually intoxicating. Set mostly in and around an English manor house, Jarman creates a fabulous world inhabited by Heathcote William's foppish Prospero. There's an additional wedding scene towards the end, which is forgivable as it allows Elizabeth Welch to enter in grand style as a Goddess and, surrounded by sailors who resemble models from a Pierre et Gilles portrait, performs a stunning rendition of the jazz standard 'Stormy Weather. Best of all is Toyah Wilcox. The punk singer, who dominated Jubilee, playing an aggressive Miranda. She's all attitude and posturing - a marked shift from the vacuous character that appears in most productions of the play.

The Angelic Conversation (1985) precedes Jarman's most critically acclaimed run series of films, which includes Caravaggio (1986), the radical The Last of England (1987), the elegiac War Requiem (1989), The Garden (1990) and Edward II (1991). He would soon lose his sight as a result of the onset of AIDs, not that anyone would guess when watching the resplendence of Wittgenstein and Blue (both 1993).

The film is a series of slow-moving images, a combination of ethereal landscapes and homo-erotic sequences, set to Judi Dench's reading of 14 sonnets. The director described it as, "a dream world, a world of magic and ritual, yet there are images there of the burning cars and radar systems, which remind you there is a price to be paid in order to gain this dream in the face of a world of violence."

The sonnets are read out of order, taking on a different narrative structure to the one created by Shakespeare, although all are from the first 126 sonnets, which are addressed to a man. The music was composed by the experimental band Coil, with additional music taken from Benjamin Britten's opera 'Peter Grimes'.

The film is an exquisite rumination on emotional love and physical desire. As such, it's probably more of a companion piece with Peter Greenaway's equally experimental Prospero's Books (1991) than Jarman's own take on The Tempest. But together with that film, The Angelic Conversation highlights what a singular talent Jarman was.

Ian Haydn Smith

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