Jarman's 'War Requiem' arrives on DVD

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As Derek Jarman’s ‘War Requiem’ arrives on DVD, Dave Calhoun observes the domino effect

Opera is experiencing its time in the dark as a number of cinemas, including the Curzon Mayfair and the Gate, regularly screen transmissions of live performances at the Royal Opera House or New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The Curzon Mayfair even offers two ‘fabulous royal boxes’ for hire at the cost of £200. But when it comes to film versions of operas or other classical music texts, choice is limited to unadventurous films of theatrical productions, the odd high-profile adaptation such as Kenneth Branagh’s ‘The Magic Flute’ or the occasional flight of true imagination by artists trying to find a marriage between the two art forms, such as the series of films commissioned by opera director Peter Sellars in 2006 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth.

One film that falls firmly in the latter category and is released next week on DVD in a twentieth-anniversary special edition is Derek Jarman’s ‘War Requiem’. This is the filmmaker’s 1989 version of Benjamin Britten’s musical drama for an orchestra, a choir and three soloists which premiered in May 1962 at the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, the original having been destroyed during the war. Britten’s piece combined the Latin texts of the traditional Requiem Mass with the words of Wilfred Owen, the poet who died in the trenches in 1918.

Twenty-six years later, 46-year-old Jarman, working with producer Don Boyd and actors including Nathaniel Parker, Tilda Swinton and Laurence Olivier set new images to a 1963 recording of Britten’s work. Jarman took the wars of the twentieth century as his inspiration, allowing him to combine literal expressions of Owen’s life and poems with poetic evocations of the experience of the Unknown Soldier and the grief of women left behind.  Swinton hauntingly expresses the latter in a long, silent take in which she responds to emotions heard in the music. Later in the film, dramatisation (all of which was filmed over 18 days in the disused Darenth Park Hospital in Kent) gives way to documentary as we watch a series of images of war from the trenches of World War I to Vietnam, edited by John Maybury.

As Swinton says in an interview on the DVD, ‘Jarman stacks up the dominos. There’s the art of Britten’s music, the art of Owen’s words and the art of his film. Then, with that real footage, all those dominos fall. I don’t know how it couldn’t be moving.’

It was Laurence Olivier’s last film: the 81-year-old appears at the beginning, playing an old soldier being pushed in a wheelchair by Swinton. He speaks Owen’s poetry to camera, then he stares into the lens, his eyes dewy with age or sadness or both, before the film journeys back to the war in which he’s served. Swinton remembers this with pride. ‘We were touched that he agreed to dress up as this old solider,’ she recalls. ‘I still pinch myself that he agreed to do it.’

War Requiem’ will be available on DVD from Nov 10. The film screens at Curzon Soho on Sun at 2pm with a Q+A afterwards with Don Boyd.

Author: Dave Calhoun



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