Derek Jarman’s impassioned, enigmatic and moving anti-war plea and homage to the work of poet Wilfred Owen and composer Benjamin Britten is no less relevant or striking today than on its initial release 20 years ago. Looking back at the tragic conflict of the First World War in the context of the most violent century in mankind’s history, Jarman paints a stunning cinematic portrait of war and its consequences.

In this incredibly ambitious work, which at times resembles something from the golden age of silent film, Jarman attempts to create a visual accompaniment to Benjamin Britten’s choral masterpiece, War Requiem, which is itself an aural interpretation of the works of Wilfred Owen – one of the most famous poets of the First World War.

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Essentially, Jarman uses his visual interpretation to affect a loose recreation of Wilfred Owen’s life as depicted in his poetry, mixing scenes from his early childhood with the bitter, uncompromising view of life in the trenches for which Owen has become celebrated. That said, the casual reader should not be misled into thinking this is a piece of narrative cinema. It is rather an episodic montage of war, comprising black and white footage from the First World War, mingled with a loose biography of Wilfred Owen and also including a wide variety of clips from more recent 20th century conflicts. It also draws on a wider cast of characters to highlight the universal implications of the material – most notably Tilda Swinton’s Nurse and Laurence Olivier’s Old Soldier.

A highly symbolic, image-driven work, War Requiem uses the ideas from Owen’s poetry to create a number of powerful recurring (often juxtaposing) motifs, including the particularly potent contrast between the youth of Owen’s childhood and the old age of Laurence Olivier’s veteran as well the opposition between the extinguished candle beside Owen’s dead body and the violent, raging flames which characterise the destructive power of war.

Highlights include a war montage sequence, which features clips from a range of bloody conflicts across the 20th century, Tilda Swinton’s devastating, emotive performance, and a tragic snowball fight between Sean Bean’s German soldier and Owen Teale’s Unknown Soldier. What makes the episodic, almost piecemeal direction so effective is the way in which Jarman alternates between the individual and the universal impact of war, using recurring symbolism throughout to make connections between the diverse strands. His style may not be to everyone’s taste but it is difficult not be impressed by his innovative approach to the work of Owen and Britten and also to the concept of anti-war sentiment on celluloid.

For anyone interested in either Owen’s poetry or Britten’s music this is a must and it’s certainly recommended viewing for anyone who wishes to see a unique anti-war film or, indeed, a truly distinctive piece of cinema.

Reviewed on: 21 Nov 2008
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An enigmatic and visually powerful statement against war.
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Director: Derek Jarman

Writer: Derek Jarman, based on Wilfred Owen's poetry and Benjamin Britten's score

Starring: Laurence Olivier, Nathaniel Parker, Tilda Swinton, Patricia Hayes, Owen Teale, Sean Bean

Year: 1989

Runtime: 92 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK

Festivals:

CFF 2008

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