The Angelic Conversation is a lyrical, haunting film about a young man’s search for love, in a dreamlike landscape. Offscreen, Dame Judi Dench recites a sequence of Shakespeare sonnets, that counterpoint the action. Jarman called it, “My most austere work, but also the closest to my heart.”
Jarman provides a literal, but suggestively tongue-in-cheek, mini-summary, in his memoir Kicking the Pricks (1987): “A series of slow-moving sequences through a landscape seen from the windows of an Elizabethan house. Two young men find and lose each other. The film ends in a garden.”
It remains one of his most polarizing works, with some people considering it boring gay soft-core or mystical mumbo-jumbo, while others see it as one of Jarman’s most fully realized, poetic, and mesmerizing films. In a way, it’s intentionally all of those things, and much more.
Intense, dreamlike, and poetic, The Angelic Conversation is one of the most artistic of Derek Jarman’s films. With his painter’s eye, Jarman conjured, in a beautiful palette of light, colour and texture, an evocative and radical visualisation of Shakespeare’s love poems.
Of the 154 sonnets written by Shakespeare, most were written to an unnamed young man, commonly referred to as the Fair Youth. Here, Judi Dench’s emotive readings of 14 sonnets are coupled with ethereal sequences; figures on seashores, by streams and in colourful gardens. The disruption of these magical scenes with images of barren and threatening landscapes echoes perfectly the celebration and torment of love explored in the sonnets.
Shot on Super-8 before being transferred to 35mm film, the unique technical approach results in a striking aesthetic, with Coil’s languorous soundtrack completing the intoxicating effect.
Derek Jarman (January 31, 1942- February 19, 1994), British film director, artist, and writer.
Jarman’s first films were experimental super 8mm shorts, a form he never entirely abandoned, and later developed further (in his films Imagining October (1984), The Angelic Conversation (1985), The Last Of England (1987) and The Garden (1990)) as a parallel to his narrative work.
Jarman made his debut in “overground” narrative filmmaking with the groundbreaking Sebastiane (1976), arguably the first British film to feature positive images of gay sexuality, and the first (and to date, only) film entirely in Latin. He follwed this with the film many regard as his first masterpiece, Jubilee (shot 1977, released 1978), in which Queen Elizabeth I of England is transported forward in time to a desolate and brutal wasteland ruled by her twentieth century namesake. Jubilee was arguably the first UK punk movie, and amongst its cast featured punk groups and figures such as Wayne County… read more
Ponderous lyricism. Despite some beautifully modulated readings of the sonnets by Judi Dench, this is a tediously slow patchwork of images either too personal to the director, impenetrable or just plain dull to spark much interest. If taken in very small bursts it can just about work as a visual collage, but the snail pace ultimately kills it.