Derek Jarman, queer provocateur and one of British cinema’s most fearless directors of the past 40 years, rightfully receives the hagiographic treatment in Isaac Julien’s slender portrait. Julien, a friend and admirer of Jarman’s whose own calling-card project, Looking for Langston, was released the same year as Jarman’s The Last of England (1988), anchors his doc around a previously unaired interview that Derek coproducer Colin MacCabe conducted with Jarman in 1990, four years before his death. Most of Julien’s original material consists of Tilda Swinton, Jarman’s muse who made her screen debut in his Caravaggio (1986), solemnly wandering the streets of London and reading in voiceover segments of “Letter to an Angel,” her tribute to the director published in the Guardian in 2002.
But where angels go, trouble follows. On the page, Swinton’s elegy is moving; hearing her deliver phrases like “but our souls droop without the bittersweet touch of something we might recognize,” the effect is fruity and turgid. Julien even includes a few scenes of himself walking through his subject’s archives, affectedly flipping through pages of Jarmania. The presence of both the Oscar-winning actor and Julien doesn’t come across as necessarily narcissistic, but maddeningly aimless and distracting. With less of Swinton swanning around, we could have seen more clips from Jarman’s oeuvre, like his heady, underappreciated Wittgenstein.