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War Requiem (1989)

Courtesy of EuroLondon Films Ltd

Main image of War Requiem (1989)
35mm, colour/black and white, 93 mins
DirectorDerek Jarman
Production CompanyAnglo International Films
 Liberty Film Sales
ProducerDon Boyd
PhotographyRichard Greatrex
MusicBenjamin Britten

Cast: Parker, Nathaniel (Wilfred Owen); Tilda Swinton (Nurse); Laurence Olivier (Old Soldier); Patricia Hayes (Mother); Rohan Mccullough (Enemy Mother); Nigel Terry (Abraham)

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A complex collage of images of war, inspired by Benjamin Britten's oratorio and Wilfred Owen's poems.

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With its dialogue-free collage of images evoked by Wilfred Owen's WWI poems and set to the music of Benjamin Britten, War Requiem, made with a budget of just £670,000, can be seen, in a sense, as an extended music video - Jarman directed videos for the likes of The Smiths and Marianne Faithfull. The film's theme and bleak mood reflect Jarman's own state of mind, since this was his first artistic project since learning he was HIV positive.

Britten composed his 'War Requiem' for the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1963, after the original was destroyed by Luftwaffe bombs in 1940. Jarman's film grew out of the director's traumatic memory of a military hospital, where as a child he spent a few days, alongside damaged victims of WWII. The film moves between past and present, its narrative unfolding through the eyes of the Old Soldier (Laurence Olivier in his last on-screen role), who begins his account with a stanza from Owen's poem 'Strange Meeting'. The film's narrative is complex, with spatial and temporal jumps and flashbacks-within-flashbacks, and the actors' performances are more symbolic than naturalistic.

Its ornate Christian iconography, absence of dialogue and oratorios sung in Latin make War Requiem one of Jarman's most challenging films. The director likens the fates of Owen and his fellow soldiers (their lives sacrificed for the satisfaction of wealthy bankers, represented here as heavily made-up men) to Christ's martyrdom. The final scene depicts the Unknown Soldier as Christ himself, in echo of Piero della Francesca's Renaissance painting, 'Resurrection'. Jarman's use of religious symbols brings to mind Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St Matthew (Italy/France, 1964), a major influence.

War Requiem evokes memories of several previous Jarman works: the scene in which Owen appears as the Biblical Isaac recalls Caravaggio (1986), while the Britannia figure and cross-dressing soldiers evoke scenes from Jubilee (1977). The gay subtext, religious motifs and the use of Latin are strongly reminiscent of Sebastiane (1976), his controversial first feature.

Jarman emphasises the atrocities of war through WWI newsreel footage, alongside images of the Cambodian conflict and the bombing of Hiroshima. In a way redolent of his earlier The Last of England (1987), the traumas of conflict are juxtaposed with sequences of Owen's idyllic childhood, shot on Super-8. The Gothic labyrinth of Dartford's Darenth Park Hospital makes a convincing likeness of Hell.

Kamila Kuc

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Video Clips
1. Strange meeting (5:14)
2. Laughing with Death (1:51)
3. So Abram rose (4:38)
Jarman, Derek (1942-1994)
Olivier, Laurence (1907-1989)
Swinton, Tilda (1960- )