The Angelic Conversation

Premiere Date — 78 minutes, color and black & white, 35mm, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Experimental
Jarman’s 4th feature, a sensual film about a young man searching for love, in a dreamlike landscape, while an offscreen narrator (Judi Dench) recites Shakespeare’s sonnets.

FILMS: Shorts | 1. Sebastiane | 2. Jubilee | 3. Tempest | 4. Angelic Conversation | 5. Caravaggio | 6. Last of England | 7. War Requiem | 8. The Garden | 9. Edward II | 10. Wittgenstein | 11. Blue.


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 [free online], 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 more.

Maybe the best way to enter a film like this is just to immerse yourself in it. Sit back, watch, and feel. Don’t worry about the Shakespeare, its place in British or cinema history, the sometimes phantasmagorical imagery, or anything else. Then, if it strikes you and you want to explore some aspects, excellent; and I hope you enjoy this review and resources. Below, in very broad strokes, you’ll learn about the historical and biographical context, then look at the many intertwined strands — technical, aesthetic, and mythical — that make The Angelic Conversation unique. From one quirky perspective, it can be seen a good counterweight to popcorn movies, like the first, second, and even the fourth Indiana Jones roller-coasters. But Jarman’s film is much more than the cinematic equivalent of ‘Eat your greens! They’re good for you!;’ it seems a distinctive, provocative work from a master poet, painter and, not least, filmmaker.

Jarman combined expansive learning with intuitive genius and fiery artistic vision. To a large extent, his films — including this one — exist on two major planes. One is what Jarman intended, either through intellectual premeditation (always including a political dimension connected to queer culture) or intuitive artistic leaps. The other level is what you (re)make his films to be, in your personal imagination. Jarman’s films are, simultaneously, his personal visions… and maybe a part of yours too.

The Angelic Conversation (1985) was Jarman’s fourth feature, made during an interminable six-year fallow period, while he waited for the financing to come through for his dream project, Caravaggio (that he would finally make the following year). Although his first three films — Sebastiane, Jubilee, and The Tempest — had all done well critically and commercially (for art house films), and had been released in professional 35 mm prints, he realized in 1984 that he needed a change in plans to get a new feature, this film, made. He would apply the inexpensive ‘quick and dirty’ Super 8 mm experimental filmmaking, from his first thirty short films, to a feature-length project.

Considering how evocatively the film’s images and sounds counterpoint Shakespeare, it may come as a surprise to learn that the sonnets were a fairly late addition. Jarman’s initial inspiration was to do a film with his close friends, music and life partners John Balance and Peter Christopherson, who created the alternative band Coil. Their extraordinary score moves effortlessly across genres, suggesting everything from classical to punk. Working with Jarman, they also brilliantly incorporate natural ‘found sounds’ like a ticking clock, running water, the crying of birds, a man panting, and industrial noise. During a few sequences, Jarman also uses the plaintive ‘Sea Interludes’ from gay composer Benjamin Britten‘s 1945 operatic masterpiece, Peter Grimes. Below, we’ll look at how Jarman’s meticulous interlayering of music and sound, including the Shakespeare sonnets as interpreted by Judi Dench, play off his unforgettable images, to provide the film with both a complex thematic unity and emotional force.

Around the same time, Jarman learned that the then-new Channel 4 had commissioned Peter Greenaway (The Draughtsman’s Contract) to interpret The Divine Comedy for A TV Dante (although it was not completed until 1989). Perhaps a bit jealous, he proposed that Channel 4 let him make a film around Shakespeare’s Sonnets (that includes its own Dantesque imagery, as we’ll see).

The title The Angelic Conversation may be more puzzling than intended, with “Angelic” leading some viewers to wonder if the Paul Reynolds character, first seen with a small mirror, might be a celestial being (that’s ultimately for you to decide). In fact, the name refers to an abandoned — or more precisely, cannibalized — Jarman project, about the fascinating naturalist-cum-alchemist, mathematician-cum-magician, John Dee (1527–1609), who inspired the title character in Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (circa 1592) and Shakespeare’s Prospero in The Tempest; Dee also appears as a character, along with Ariel, in Jarman’s Jubilee. Dee believed that he was in direct “angelic conversation” with members of the heavenly host, who had chosen him as their earthly messenger. He transcribed what they dictated in their celestial “Enochian” language: an example, from the first page of the 1583 Book of Enoch, Revealed to Dr. John Dee by the Angels, is: “zuresk od adaph mal zez geno au marlan oh muzpa.” Oy vey! (I can’t resist including this trivia: in 1584, an angel sent Dee to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II to tell him, to his face, that he is “evil” and must change his ways or face the consequences: only a man of Dee’s charisma could have escaped burning at the stake — that, or the fact that the pope believed Dee possessed the ultimate alchemical secret, of the Philosopher’s Stone that could turn base metals into gold.)

Britain’s Conservative Party felt that they also had something of an “angelic conversation” going, with heavenly forces leading them to landslide victories in 1983 and 1987 under Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister from 1979 till 1990. Jarman despised the Conservatives’ hypocrisy, touting “free market” and “pro-family” values, while jackbooting the poor and working class. It was an especially volatile time for GLBT people, with the AIDS epidemic decimating not only its leaders and artists, but everyone. Jarman was diagnosed as HIV-positive in late 1986. Symptomatic of that era — when cultural conformity trumped the other Conservative value, individual liberty — was the passage of Section 28 of the Local Government Act of 1988. It demanded that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality,” and referring to same-sex couples’ loving commitment “as a pretended family relationship.” Educators were afraid of discussing gay issues, even bullying, with students for fear of losing state funds; and many groups closed or limited their activities. But such self-censorship was the opposite of the new gay rights direct action groups like OLGA and OutRage!, of which Jarman was a vocal supporter. The despicable Section 28 was not rescinded in full until 2003.

Of course, the persecution of gay people was nothing new in Britain (and elsewhere). If the passionate same-sex love in Shakespeare’s Sonnets had ‘gone all the way,’ there was the draconian anti-sodomy Buggery Act in 1533, from the reign of Henry VIII (hardly a moral paragon). If convicted, the punishment was death… until 1861, when it was ‘mercifully’ reduced to prison with hard labor (ask Oscar Wilde about that).

On a vastly happier note, Jarman had only wonderful memories of making The Angelic Conversation that summer of 1984. He filmed over a period of two months, with James Mackay and the two actors — Paul Reynolds and Phillip Williamson (who all met at the popular dance club named Heaven) — as principal collaborators. Together with a small, flexible crew, they shot at locations in the Winspit caves, the Isle of Grain, the cliffs near Dancing Ledge (seen at the end of Jubilee), and Somerset, at the Elizabethan manor and gardens of Montacute House (built around 1598, it appears in several films, including Ang Lee’s 1995 Sense and Sensibility and Shekhar Kapur’s 1999 Elizabeth).

As we now begin analyzing the film, note that although the characters are referred to by the actor’s names, “Williamson” and “Reynolds,” as is customary when writing about this film, but with no assumptions about their real lives. As Jarman writes in Kicking the Pricks, he had been fascinated by Reynolds’ face, “moody with great sadness…. One evening [at Heaven] I mugged up the courage to speak to him, as I was slightly drunk…. [He] said that he must be the only person in the club who had understood the Latin of Sebastiane. He was an archeologist, doing a PhD in late Roman pottery. In The Last of England he is an archeologist.” Jarman and Reynolds, both struck by Williamson (who has the spider tattoo on his shoulder), approached him about being in the film. Surprised and delighted that he accepted, Jarman then says, “I filmed the love affair between them.” Although I haven’t found details about what Phillip Williamson is up to these days, Paul Reynolds is a renowned archaeologist specializing in classical and post-classical Mediterranean ceramics (talk about an eclectic résumé).

Among Jarman’s published comments on this film, the most provocative was his key to its deeper meanings, in the Autumn 1985 issue of Afterimage 12:

“The beginning had symbols of industrialism — the burning car. The cross [the yoke that Williamson carries] related to industrialism — sort of a Buñuel moment. The weight of received thought. The fog and night journey is the idea of a journey which is so important to Jung. That is the first section. Then I thought the caves were places where analysis began. The dark cave where if you went under the temple, where they would put you out if you were ill. The place where the world might be put to right. A sort of descent into darkness — that is like Rimbaud — the descent into the other side is necessary. Then I saw the swimming section as absolution, the ritual washing of the world… and the sunlight comes out and one is in the fresh air. I saw the section with the emperor as service for others… The psychotic wrestling match is with oneself … and here is a sort of restitution, a sort of homoerotic scene… The signal — the radar thing — which at first is so menacing… is eradicated by the flowers. This is almost back to the beginning and this time the sunlight is there.”

This is a perfect fit for the film: blending the historical, literary, mythical, and autobiographical. The statement is direct yet with suggestive gaps, and the spirit of ambiguity hovers over it all. We’ll hold Jarman’s gloss up to the mirror of his film, and see what it reveals, and obscures.

Let’s start by looking at the above quotation’s most glaring: Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Below you will find full texts of all fourteen sonnets, in the order in which they are performed by Judi Dench. They are the only spoken words in the film — and who could have spoken them as sublimely as this extraordinary actress.

Jarman wanted a woman as reciter, in part to balance the high testosterone level of the poetry, and his all-male cast. Dench’s delivery is perfect both for Shakespeare and Jarman. It’s a voice performance with intonations subtly but clearly revealing both the poems’ poetic and emotional structures; it’s all cool surface but you can feel the heat waiting to erupt at any time — just as you can see it on screen, both in Williamson and Reynold’s erotically charged performances, and in the imagery. A flaring torch, or blinding light, is never far away.

By the time of this film, Jarman had already directed music videos for performers including The Sex Pistols, Marianne Faithfull, and Throbbing Gristle (featuring a pre-Coil Peter Christopherson) — and he’d soon direct videos for The Smiths and Pet Shop Boys; but here he creates what may be the first and still the best, um, sonnet video. Jarman is one of the few filmmakers who has brilliantly revealed Shakespeare on screen, both in The Tempest and, very differently, here.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets have been acclaimed, for centuries, as the greatest in the English language — but there is one glaring aspect that has sent chills down the spines of generations of tight-lipped readers, who must have been overjoyed at the heterosexually retooled depiction of the Bard in Shakespeare in Love (in which Judi Dench won an Oscar for her performance as Queen Elizabeth). But as Jarman bluntly put it, “The Angelic Conversation was a reclamation, it was important for us to know that… Our greatest love poetry is queer.” (One could add, as is the greatest American poetic cycle, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.)

Shakespeare addresses over eighty percent of the work — including Sonnet XVIII: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” — to a beautiful young man (with attitude) who has enflamed the poet. As Jarman once remarked, (The remaining poems are addressed to a so-called Dark Lady, and involve the poet in a love triangle, that’s no less soap-operatic than the one Jarman concocts in Caravaggio.) Published in 1609 when Shakespeare was 45, this is not only English literature’s greatest homoerotic poetic sequence but a towering artistic achievement by any standard. Libraries are filled with critiques of the slim volume, but here are a few excellent basic resources: all 154 Sonnets in a single file, an introduction to the work, same-sex aspects of Shakespeare, and — for fun — Oscar Wilde’s neglected 1891 masterpiece The Portrait of Mr. W.H. (that tries to lay bare the Sonnets’ truth… or not; this brilliantly entertaining novella anticipates Modernism, in particular Vladimir Nabokov).

Although Jarman grafted the sonnets onto the film rather late in its genesis, they are a perfect fit in both content and, in surprising ways, form. ‘Surprising’ because some viewers misperceive this film as shapeless, while Shakespeare’s poems are erected upon a rigid form, that he devised from earlier types of sonnets, including those of Petrarch and the epochal artist/poet Michelangelo’s equally homoerotic sonnets (that were censored until a century ago). Shakespeare’s pulsing eroticism is just barely held in check by the rigid poetic form, with its 10 metrical beats to the line and clear-cut rhyme scheme in three quatrains and a final two-line couplet: abab cdcd efef gg.

Yet Shakespeare’s fundamental themes are also those of Jarman’s film, even in its pre-Sonnets phase:

  • love and its fickleness (Sonnet CXLVIII: “O me, what eyes hath love put in my head, /
    Which have no correspondence with true sight!…”);
  • the transience of beauty and the mutability of life — the principal theme of all Renaissance art (Sonnet CIV: “To me, fair friend, you can never be old, / For as you were when first your eye I ey’d …”);
  • the struggle between sexual fantasy and reality (Sonnet CXLVIII: “O me, what eyes hath love put in my head, / Which have no correspondence with true sight!…”);
  • self-destructiveness (Sonnet LVII: “Being your slave what should I do but tend / Upon the hours, and times of your desire?…”);
  • the complexity of personal versus social identity (Sonnet XXIX: “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, / I all alone beweep my outcast state…”).

Jarman uses film in its most poetic form, comparable in effect to how Shakespeare uses language. For instance, Jarman’s use of dramatically contrasted scenes — radiantly transfigured landscape (garden, beach, sea) juxtaposed with ominous military-industrial, barren locales (wasteland, endless wire fence, cave) — reflects the Sonnets’ alternating joy and despair over the shifting currents of love.

In a larger view of Jarman’s films — especially his most intimate, experimental works like this film, The Last of England and Blue — it can be argued that they tellingly resist verbal logic. They are works of lyric cinema, as beautifully dense with meaning (aesthetic, political, and personal – both Jarman’s and each individual viewer’s), and as resistant to paraphrase, as fine poetry. In his spoken texts for The Last of England and Blue, as well as passages in his memoirs, Jarman reveals himself as, arguably, one of the greatest English poets of recent decades: strikingly original verbal imagery, drawing on both classical literary traditions and his own life, as well as a mastery of using verbal rhythm to enrich meaning — and that’s in addition to his brilliant, sometimes contrapuntal, uses of cinematic imagery and rhythm.

Both Shakespeare’s Sonnets and The Angelic Conversation are founded on metaphor, to create a rich density of meaning — with images suggesting so much more than they do in everyday life — and beguiling forms of expression. In both Shakespeare’s verse and Jarman’s Super 8, there is always a lot happening at once. They are incomparably rich, existing on many intertwined levels of thought and emotion. Like lived experience.

Jarman is inspired not just by Shakespeare, but by such earlier artists of avant-garde cinema as Maya Deren (“Meshes of the Afternoon”s), as well as the openly, and fabulously, gay artists Jean Cocteau (“Blood of a Poet”), Kenneth Anger (“Lucifer Rising” — and Williamson’s fan in the final scene recalls Anger’s flawless “Eaux d’Artifice”), and Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose Porcile seems a particular influence on this film, in its cross-cutting between a barren volcanic landscape, in some mythic Wasteland, and a palatial Baroque estate in modern times.

Of course, the influences extend much farther back than cinema. Jarman specifically mentioned Rimbaud, in the Afterimage piece; but the burdens that the men carry, before they enter the cave, recall not only Jesus carrying his fateful cross but the classical myth of Sisyphus, and Dante’s borrowing of his fate — futile, hopeless, endlessly repetitive labor: rolling a boulder up a hill, only to have it fall back as soon as the summit is reached… forever — for the fourth circle of the Inferno (whose Channel 4 incarnation was to be directed by Jarman’s esteemed artistic rival, Peter Greenaway). Jarman also noted the centrality of the cave metaphor in Jung’s psychoanalytical work; and there are a couple of scenes, involving combat with shadows, that also recall Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave (in The Republic, Book 7), in which we see how easy it easy to confuse mere reflected shapes for reality. Further, Jarman’s cave reminds us that several of his films are set, for both budgetary and metaphorical reasons, in various limbos — where the protagonists’ spirits are put to the test — including Caravaggio, Edward II, Wittgenstein, and Blue.

Jarman creates a space that is at once uniquely personal and yet mythic, otherworldly, timeless. Yet paradoxically, this ‘timelessness’ is in ironic contradiction to the ultimate theme of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and, arguably, this film: mutability, separation, and inevitably death, first of the heart, then at last the body. These are, of course, universal experiences; and that brings us to the mythic, and even mystical, depths of the film.

Although I haven’t found any references to it, it seems that The Angelic Conversation’s lineage, arguably, can be traced all the way back to not only the oldest surviving work of GLBT literature, but of world literature: the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, written 4,000 years ago. It’s the epic love story of two men who ‘meet cute’ (in Hollywood parlance) in a non-stop wrestling bout that lasts for days. It results in a draw, but reveals their unshakeable devotion and passion for each other — even beyond death.

In the landmark study of comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), author Joseph Campbell isolates the fundamental structure underlying all the world’s major myths, as well as the basis for dramatic structure in fiction and film, from Gilgamesh to Star Wars, not to mention the film at hand. Campbell’s pattern applies equally to comedy, drama, documentaries, and even experimental film (that often only seem to have no narrative spine). Below is a very brief summary of Campbell’s basic mythic structure — followed by how it relates to The Angelic Conversation. You’ll notice how closely Jarman, perhaps unwittingly, follows Campbell’s archetype, even in the summary “key” he provided in Afterimage 12 (quoted above). (For fun, try applying this outline to any of your favorite films, books, or plays — no mater how unlikely it might seem at first; Campbell’s archetypal structure truly is foundational.)

  1. The hero is introduced in his/her ordinary world, where — Williamson at the sprawling Montacute House
  2. s/he [I’m using a gender neutral form] receives the call to adventure. — Reynolds using a mirror to flash sunlight at Williamson
  3. S/he is reluctant at first but is encouraged… to cross — Williamson’s initial hesitation, but the light is so beautiful
  4. the first threshold, where s/he encounters various… — Williamson enters a barren, urban landscape, with a massive radar tower in the background
  5. tests and helpers. — Williamson is forced to carry ambiguous, but heavy, objects; then later he swims in the (purifying) sea
  6. S/he at last reaches the innermost cave, and must endure — a cave is the film’s primary locale; the place where Williamson and Reynolds are tested against each other and themselves
  7. the supreme ordeal. — bare, both literally and metaphorically, Williamson and Reynolds wrestle
  8. S/he seizes the sword or treasure but is — here the treasure is the “sword” of male love, more particularly Williamson’s intimate connection with another man after being locked up (alone) in Montacute
  9. Imagepursued by terrible forces on the road back home and almost dies. — melodrama downplayed, but there is the transition back to the everyday world; intriguingly, Jarman at this point includes the literally narcissistic (and Cocteau-esque) scene of Williamson transfixed by his own intimate reflection, possibly making his “antagonist” himself, as someone too self-contained to connect deeply with another person, despite his passionate encounter with Reynolds
  10. S/he is resurrected and transformed by this experience. — one hopes!, although Williamson and Reynolds are separate at film’s end
  11. S/he returns home with a treasure, boon, or elixir to benefit the world. — hope is exemplified on a larger scale by the key image of lush blossoms, associated with Reynolds (who opened up Williamson’s emotions), obscuring the menacing radar, that symbolizes the mechanical modern tyranny. As for what ultimately happens between Williamson and Reynolds (even if the latter is merely a liberating figment of the former’s imagination, he still has awakened Williamson), that is for you to decide.

One reason this pattern is so universal is that it’s based on even earlier ritualistic traditions. Like the primal understanding of the world — embodied in various rites — Jarman structures the imagery of his film around the ancient belief in Four Elements as the essences of the natural world: earth, air, fire, and water. At different times, he uses each of these elements as part of the underlying ritualistic basis of the film, respectively earth (the cave — as the place of testing and transfiguration; air (perhaps Judi Dench’s voice reciting the sonnets, that suffuses all of the other (pun intended) elements); fire (both the blinding reflected light in mirrors, as well as the torches and candles — all classic symbols for transience); and water (the purifying, radiant ocean that marks Williamson’s transformation into a sexually, and perhaps emotionally, open person). The elements also suggest the bifurcated nature of this world, with earth and air, fire and water being opposites or, from a more Eastern perspective, necessary complements.

These rituals — derived as much from Jarman’s personal experiences as myth, and an eclectic use of various art forms — bridge the ultimate gap: between the everyday world and a spiritual world (whether or not it’s regarded as being within us).

Yet in looking at the film as a whole, there are other crucial elements that we need to integrate with the text and narrative, namely, Jarman’s use of image (this is one of the few films that he shot entirely himself) and sound (as noted above, he worked very closely with Coil on all aspects). Onwards!

In a film incorporating so many different forms of paradox, there is also a major financial one. Jarman knew that the lower the budget, the greater the personal freedom. So after three (Jarman would chuckle at the term) “mainstream” films done in 35mm — and with Caravaggio long on hold — Jarman went for his trusty Super-8 Nizo camera, that he got in the ’70s. He’d often used it to make short experimental films, including some in a type of stop-motion photography where he shot only three or six frames per second, and then projected the film at a comparably “unnatural” speed. The effect resembles a dreamlike, or nightmarish, magic lantern show. And so was The Angelic Conversation’s unique style born. Jarman joked that he did this to make the expensive film cartridges last longer — each was good for only two and a half minutes — but he clearly had more artistic visions in mind too (further proof that you have to read Jarman’s comments on his own work with more than a few grains salt).

But Jarman was only warming up his bag of cost-effective visual effects magic. For some scenes, he would transfer the Super-8 footage to a video — or even just use a video camera to shoot the actual film projected on a textured wall, or occasionally an actor. Then he could apply a range of visual effects to this second, or third, generation footage. (Jarman was always a painter at heart.) He found that he could create a uniquely disorienting look by processing black and white film images on video. Other times he would deliberately trick the equipment, when it came time for color correction: instead of the standard white card, he’d slip in a bright colored gel (green was a favorite), until he achieved the unearthly feel he wanted. Then, he’d blow up the effects-laden video (that had begun as raw Super-8) to 35 mm (thanks to a last-minute British Film Institute grant of ₤35,000). This final process strikingly increased the distressed quality of the images: Jarman was happy. (This DVD is probably an ideal representation of the textures and color effects Jarman wanted.) The result is like nothing seen before.

Outlines are blurred, colors become unstable and sometimes bleed all over the place (especially in the “emperor” scene) and then, as noted above, there’s the eerie stop-motion jerkiness from shooting at around 3, instead of 24, frames per second. We know what’s being projected, but everything is off: this is, literally and metaphorically, a world seen through a glass, darkly. (It predates by almost fifteen years a similar technique popularized — to the point where it’s become the obligatory cliche in virtually every twenty-first century ghost movie — in Hideo Nakata’s landmark horror film, Ringu, whose vengeful ghost girl is defined by her spasmodic movements that suggest a space/time even more fractured than Jarman’s.)

On a larger level, the technique embodies a key theme of Jarman’s film, Shakespeare’s sonnets, and even some people’s lives: trying to make time stop — in a world that is clouded by the pull between darkness and light, the cave and the sunlit garden — but never succeeding, as the film and time go on, tick tick tick — like the clock that periodically intrudes on the soundtrack.

Imagehis accretion of dramatic ‘painterly’ effects also provides one of the most powerful moments in the film, by its absence. After the extended sequence of Williamson and Reynolds wrestling in the cave, then turning by degrees into lovers, Jarman shows us perhaps the only unadorned video footage — natural colors, and harsh sharpness that tape is known for — of the two tenderly cradling each other, half-asleep. The camera holds on them, revealing the natural beings they are: here more connected to the primal elements — a fanciful interpretation might see them, at this point, as living embodiments of fire, earth, water and air combined — rather than the tortured (especially Williamson), man-made role-players they’ve been. But in a film, or sonnet, about the ephemeral, you know this paradisal — and radically, same-sex (Adam and Steve?) — innocence won’t last.

After having praised this film to the skies, let me point out a couple of elements that don’t work, at least for me. Williamson’s fight with his shadow in the cave is, technically, the one special effects dud in the movie. Even if you don’t pick up on the Jung and/or Plato reference, it just goes on for way too long. It makes its point, which is more literalistic than any other imager in this fantastic picture, but then just keeps on making it. Cut!

My biggest problem with the film is the interminable sequence with Reynolds washing a guy covered in tattoos, while Williamson stands nearby with a torch. If it hadn’t been for Jarman’s comment in Afterimage, I would never have guessed what the man was supposed to be: “I saw the section with the emperor as service for others….” Run that by me again. First, we know from Kicking the Pricks that, pre-Sonnets, Jarman considered structuring the film around yet another literary landmark, the rueful, thousand year-old Middle English poem “The Wanderer,” that includes a comparable central scene of obeisance (the poem was also a major inspiration for Tolkien, who borrowed its concept of “Middle Earth” for The Lord of the Rings). I do not know who the performer is, playing the “emperor” — and I intend no disrespect — but the crown does not sit comfortably on his head. And how many emperors, except maybe Caligula, have been covered in occult/tongue-in-cheek psychobilly tattoos? And a giant, sexually leering demon’s head icon is anything but neutral (what kind of “service for others” does that imply, Mr. Jarman The Self-Annotator?) But main problem may be that the actor is not present in his performance. We see his awkwardness all too clearly, and it breaks whatever mood Jarman was going for (Kenneth Anger has a similar performer problem in “Lucifer Rising”). By contrast, Williamson and Reynolds are absolutely in character at all times, no matter how improvisatory Jarman’s directorial approach, or how often psychology is trumped by arcane symbolism. Call me a heretic, but I wish this sequence were not in film (of course, it would be perfect for a DVD Deleted Scenes shrine — and speaking of The Digital Era, just imagine what Jarman could do with today’s inexpensive but versatile technology).

Yet on one level, even this misplaced scene fits, with the film’s overarching theme of contradiction — more precisely, of paradox that leads, possibly, to a new kind of understanding. It’s on this level that everything comes together: image, sound, meaning and emotion… starting with the image.

Jarman’s nervous stop-motion effect, used throughout the film, connects to the theme in a visceral way. As in Shakespeare’s poetry, there is a futile attempt to try to freeze time, only here it slips jitteringly away, slightly out of control, over and over. That hint of futility brings to mind Sisyphus, just as the cave recalls that mythic character’s figuration in Dante and, Jung would say, our collective unsconscious.

As we’ve seen, there is a persistent tension in the imagery, from first frame (Williamson, seemingly imprisoned behind the bar-like windows in a tower — how like a character in a fairy tale, awaiting their prince) to last (Reynolds burying his face in a cascade of blossoms — the very ones that, if only from a certain angle, blot out the menacing military-industrial radar that looms overhead).

And the camera eye — the film’s de facto narrator — is (literally and synbolically) unstable, not only in its disorienting pulsing effects but in its shuttling between moments of stasis (the unnervingly seductive close-ups of the flickering candle) and darting, nervous movement, again seen in the first shot, that takes a good long while for the camera finally to settle on a close shot of Williamson — who then, as if announcing his bid for independence (and breaking cinema’s ultimate taboo), stares directly into the lens… at us.

Sometimes the sonnets are in synch with the action onscreen, as at the mid-point, with Williamson alone on the rocks at Dancing Ledge, with Judi Dench reciting Sonnet XXIX: “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, / I all alone beweep my outcast state…”: what we see is literally paralleled by what we hear, with the sonnet fleshing out the character’s inner life. And during the climactic Williamson and Reynold love scene, we hear the enflamed Sonnet LV, ending “…You live in this, and dwell in lover’s eyes.” But more often, there are degrees of intriguing disconnect between the action onscreen and Shakespeare’s words: I’ll leave the nature and meaning of those subtle (dis)connections for you to explore.

Even the soundscape is as riddled with oppositions as the real, but symbolically — and mythically — charged, landscape: Coil’s electronic pulses against their sometimes almost classical riffs, and Britten’s gorgeous “Sea Interludes” against aesthetically structured noise: breathing, waves, birds, clock.

They key moment of oppositions uniting into a kind of whole, comes during the wrestling/love-making sequence of Williamson and Reynolds. Using composition, lighting, and the natural appearance of the stripped actors, Jarman here makes them seem reflections, if not mirror opposites, of each other. Connection, perhaps even wholeness, seems possible; of course, in the volatile world of this film (and Shakespeare’s poetry), that implies the question, For who long?

The film holds all of its many contradictions, and moment of unity, together, as if to suggest that life may be not just a great wheel of fateful fortune but also a balancing act. The young men may or, as in real life, may not get back together, but the film itself is the hope. On a fundamental level, Jarman shows us — as if by Prospero-like magic — that a house divided against itself, on every level, can yet stand, at least for a time, as a flexible, beautiful organic whole.

As Jarman wrote, in Afterimage, about the ending: the radar “which at first is so menacing… is eradicated by the flowers. This is almost back to the beginning and this time the sunlight is there.” And yet the ending is ambiguous in many ways. In a film whose emotional core is about overcoming separation — Jarman even said in his diary that, “There had never been a good screen kiss in a gay film. I wanted to right that” (and he certainly did) — it ends, as Jarman summarized it so succinctly: the “Two young men… lose each other. The film ends in a garden.”

Not what most people would call a happy ending (although it’s exactly the kind of “inevitability” that Section 28 could embrace, since no “pretended family relationship” between the two men is achieved… unless we create our own imagined sequel — something that Jarman, and possibly Shakespeare, would encourage).

To get a sense of the fullness of Jarman’s thought, and emotion, here, let’s flesh out our understanding of what a garden meant to this artist whose media included paint, film, literature and, yes, horticulture. One of Jarman’s universally acknowledged masterpieces is his radiant garden at Dungeness. What makes it a work of modern art is how he incorporates industrial waste into the design — much as he incorporates an endless, suggestive series of discordant elements within The Angelic Conversation and his other films. And like the blossoms that, at least sometimes (until the winter), blot out the radar radar tower, Jarman’s own garden still blooms within sight of a nuclear reactor.

Maybe that’s the hope within this film too: the beautiful integration of the natural and the human-made. Like Williamson and Reynolds peacefully sleeping together, at the end of a sometimes tortured journey from the shadowy cave back up to a now transfigured world of light. Jarman’s film can be seen as a celebration of the transient, knowing — like Shakespeare — that what’s good now will pass, but that there will be a return, in some form — even if only as a “remembrance of things past.” As we hear in Sonnet CIV:

“Else call it winter, which being full of care
Makes summer’s welcome thrice more wish’d, more rare.”

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Full Texts of All Shakespeare Sonnets in the Film

This is the order in which Jarman uses the fourteen poems:

  • Sonnet LVII
    Being your slave, what should I do but tend
    Upon the hours and times of your desire?
    I have no precious time at all to spend,
    Nor services to do, till you require.
    Nor dare I chide the world-without-end hour
    Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you,
    Nor think the bitterness of absence sour
    When you have bid your servant once adieu;
    Nor dare I question with my jealous thought
    Where you may be, or your affairs suppose,
    But, like a sad slave, stay and think of nought
    Save, where you are how happy you make those.
       So true a fool is love that in your will,
       Though you do any thing, he thinks no ill.

  • Sonnet XC
    Then hate me when thou wilt; if ever, now;
    Now, while the world is bent my deeds to cross,
    Join with the spite of fortune, make me bow,
    And do not drop in for an after-loss:
    Ah, do not, when my heart hath ‘scoped this sorrow,
    Come in the rearward of a conquer’d woe;
    Give not a windy night a rainy morrow,
    To linger out a purposed overthrow.
    If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last,
    When other petty griefs have done their spite
    But in the onset come; so shall I taste
    At first the very worst of fortune’s might,
       And other strains of woe, which now seem woe,
       Compared with loss of thee will not seem so.

  • Sonnet XLIII
    When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
    For all the day they view things unrespected;
    But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
    And darkly bright are bright in dark directed.
    Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
    How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
    To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
    When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!
    How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
    By looking on thee in the living day,
    When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
    Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!
       All days are nights to see till I see thee,
       And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

  • Sonnet LIII
    What is your substance, whereof are you made,
    That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
    Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
    And you, but one, can every shadow lend.
    Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
    Is poorly imitated after you;
    On Helen’s cheek all art of beauty set,
    And you in Grecian tires are painted new:
    Speak of the spring and foison of the year;
    The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
    The other as your bounty doth appear;
    And you in every blessed shape we know.
       In all external grace you have some part,
       But you like none, none you, for constant heart.

  • Sonnet CXLVIII
    O me, what eyes hath Love put in my head,
    Which have no correspondence with true sight!
    Or, if they have, where is my judgment fled,
    That censures falsely what they see aright?
    If that be fair whereon my false eyes dote,
    What means the world to say it is not so?
    If it be not, then love doth well denote
    Love’s eye is not so true as all men’s ‘No.’
    How can it? O, how can Love’s eye be true,
    That is so vex’d with watching and with tears?
    No marvel then, though I mistake my view;
    The sun itself sees not till heaven clears.
       O cunning Love! with tears thou keep’st me blind,
       Lest eyes well-seeing thy foul faults should find.

  • Sonnet CXXVI
    O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
    Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle, hour;
    Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st
    Thy lovers withering as thy sweet self grow’st;
    If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
    As thou goest onwards, still will pluck thee back,
    She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
    May time disgrace and wretched minutes kill.
    Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure!
    She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure:
       Her audit, though delay’d, answer’d must be,
       And her quietus is to render thee.

  • Sonnet XXIX
    When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
    I all alone beweep my outcast state
    And trouble deal heaven with my bootless cries
    And look upon myself and curse my fate,
    Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
    Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
    Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
    With what I most enjoy contented least;
    Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
    Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
    Like to the lark at break of day arising
    From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
       For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
       That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

  • Sonnet XCIV
    They that have power to hurt and will do none,
    That do not do the thing they most do show,
    Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
    Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow,
    They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
    And husband nature’s riches from expense;
    They are the lords and owners of their faces,
    Others but stewards of their excellence.
    The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
    Though to itself it only live and die,
    But if that flower with base infection meet,
    The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
       For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
       Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

  • Sonnet XXX
    When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
    I summon up remembrance of things past,
    I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
    And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
    Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
    For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
    And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
    And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
    Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
    And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
    The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
    Which I new pay as if not paid before.
       But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
       All losses are restored and sorrows end.

  • Sonnet LV
    Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
    Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
    But you shall shine more bright in these contents
    Than unswept stone besmear’d with sluttish time.
    When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
    And broils root out the work of masonry,
    Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
    The living record of your memory.
    ‘Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
    Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
    Even in the eyes of all posterity
    That wear this world out to the ending doom.
       So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
       You live in this, and dwell in lover’s eyes.

  • Sonnet XXVII
    Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
    The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
    But then begins a journey in my head,
    To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:
    For then my thoughts, from far where I abide,
    Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
    And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
    Looking on darkness which the blind do see
    Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
    Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
    Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
    Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.
       Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
       For thee and for myself no quiet find.

  • Sonnet LXI
    Is it thy will thy image should keep open
    My heavy eyelids to the weary night?
    Dost thou desire my slumbers should be broken,
    While shadows like to thee do mock my sight?
    Is it thy spirit that thou send’st from thee
    So far from home into my deeds to pry,
    To find out shames and idle hours in me,
    The scope and tenor of thy jealousy?
    O, no! thy love, though much, is not so great:
    It is my love that keeps mine eye awake;
    Mine own true love that doth my rest defeat,
    To play the watchman ever for thy sake:
       For thee watch I whilst thou dost wake elsewhere,
       From me far off, with others all too near.

  • Sonnet LVI
    Sweet love, renew thy force; be it not said
    Thy edge should blunter be than appetite,
    Which but to-day by feeding is allay’d,
    To-morrow sharpen’d in his former might:
    So, love, be thou; although to-day thou fill
    Thy hungry eyes even till they wink with fullness,
    To-morrow see again, and do not kill
    The spirit of love with a perpetual dullness.
    Let this sad interim like the ocean be
    Which parts the shore, where two contracted new
    Come daily to the banks, that, when they see
    Return of love, more blest may be the view;
       Else call it winter, which being full of care
       Makes summer’s welcome thrice more wish’d, more rare.

  • Sonnet CIV
    To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
    For as you were when first your eye I ey’d,
    Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
    Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
    Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn’d
    In process of the seasons have I seen,
    Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn’d,
    Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
    Ah! yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
    Steal from his figure and no pace perceived;
    So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
    Hath motion and mine eye may be deceived:
       For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred;
       Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.


  • Directed and Photographed by Jarman
  • Text: Sonnets by William Shakespeare
  • Produced by James Mackay
  • Production Designer: Christopher Hobbs
  • Edited by Peter Cartwright, Derek Jarman, and Cerith Wyn Evans
  • Working in various capacities (including minor performance roles): Dave Baby, Timothy Burke, Simon Costin, Christopher Hobbs, Philip McDonald, Toby Mott, Steve Randall, Robert Sharp, and Tony Wood
  • Original Music by Coil (John Balance, Peter Christopherson, and Stephen Thrower)
  • Music by Benjamin Britten – “Sea Interludes” from the opera Peter Grimes (conducted by Sir Colin Davis, not “Davies” as mistakenly identified in the film’s credits: Davis is one of the greatest conductors; his recordings of Berlioz, among many others, remain gloriously definitive)

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  • Judi Dench (voice)
  • Paul Reynolds
  • Phillip Williamson

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Music plays an integral part in The Angelic Conversation, and all of Jarman’s films. Here is the soundtrack listing, including titles for individual musical cues. Simon Fisher-Turner used his name ‘Simon Turner’ on this film. The album was originally released by Threshold House (UK), LOCI CD 6, but it is out of print. Coil now sells the album directly from their site at this link.

  1. Ascension
  2. Enochian Calling
  3. Angelic Stations
  4. Finite Bees
  5. Cave of Roses
  6. Sun Ascension
  7. Madriiax
  8. Escalation
  9. Never
  10. Enochian Calling II
  11. Montecute


Original Video Release (Used for This Review)

Zeitgeist Films’ DVD has perhaps the finest image and sound quality this picture, originally — and intentionally — shot on Super 8 and videotape, has ever known. All of the many supplements are of genuine interest. Like all five films in the collection Glitterbox: Derek Jarman x 4, this is a superb release of an unforgettable picture. Following is a list of special features for this release.

  • Restored transfer
  • Video interviews with producer James Mackay and production designer Christopher Hobbs
  • Derek Jarman in conversation with Simon Field (1989)
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired
  • Only available as part of the four-disc / five-film box set, Glitterbox: Derek Jarman x 4 (The Angelic Conversation, Caravaggio, Wittgenstein, Blue, plus the posthumous Glitterbug) — $74.99 suggested retail.
Jim's Reviews / Jarman
Jim’s Reviews / Jarman

Reviewed Month xx, 200x / Revised October 12, 2020

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