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Angelic Conversation, The (1985)


Main image of Angelic Conversation, The (1985)
35mm, 78 minutes, colour
DirectorDerek Jarman
Production CompanyBFI Production Board, Channel 4
Original sonnets William Shakespeare
Read byJudi Dench
CinematographyJames Mackay

Shakespeare's sonnets accompanied by homoerotic images.

Show full synopsis

Gentle and romantic, The Angelic Conversation was Derek Jarman's favourite artistic project. Structured around fourteen of Shakespeare's sonnets read by Judi Dench, the film is an exploration of love and desire between two men: Paul (an archaeologist from Jarman's The Last of England, 1987) and Philip. Also inspired by the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer, the project began as a series of improvisations and experiments shot on Super-8 in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Jarman was fascinated with the visual effects mirrors create, as seen in his short film The Art of Mirrors (1973). Mirrors operate here as a symbol of homosexual desire: a scene of two men kissing is constructed in such a way as to evoke Narcissus kissing his own reflection. The film has no structured plot and the journey of its two lovers is reminiscent of Homer's Odyssey, with a confusion of dream and reality, past and present. The director employs slow motion and stop-frame techniques to generate a hallucinatory effect of suspended time, while he deliberately limits his colour palette by experimenting with the white balance controls and different colour filters. This is one of the most painterly of Jarman's films, and is strongly reminiscent of the work of William Blake.

In common with other Jarman works, there is much reference to religion and ritual: a scene in which a prince's feet are washed recalls Christ and the cleansing of sins; Paul's carrying of a post evokes the stations of the cross. The film's idealisation of love is contrasted with a depressing reality: a burning car, a rotating radar and a fence suggesting surveillance and control. The presence of nature (the Dorset seascape, the cliffs of Dancing Ledge, the caves at Winspit and the garden of the Montacute mansion in Somerset) corresponds with images from the work of Humphrey Jennings and Powell and Pressburger, where the alliance of man and nature represents an idyllic escape from the industrial world.

The Angelic Conversation was made after a decade of gay liberation, and at the dawn of the AIDS crisis in the UK and North America. Jarman was not yet aware of his own HIV infection, yet critics have noted that the film raises issues of safe sex. With the accompaniment of Benjamin Britten's 'Sea Interludes' (from Peter Grimes) and Coil's atmospheric electronics, it is a haunting 78-minute haunting journey described in vibrant images.

Kamila Kuc

*This film is available on BFI DVD.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. The odyssey (5:58)
2. They are the Lords (3:42)
Production stills
Dench, Judi (1934-)
Jarman, Derek (1942-1994)
Channel 4 and Film
Shakespeare on Screen
They Started Here