Like nearly all of Derek Jarman’s films, his War Requiem (1989) is an uneven work where it’s often easier to admire what was attempted more than what was actually achieved. Many times Jarman’s films are much more interesting to think about after the fact than they are while watching them—and to some degree that’s the case here. The concept is a daunting one. Jarman takes composer Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem and builds a dialogue-less film around it. (The exception to this is during the opening when Laurence Olivier in his final performance recites a poem.) Wilfred Owen (Nathaniel Parker), who died a week before the end of WWI, wrote the poems that formed the basis and the inspiration for Britten’s composition. The film is meant to encompass something of the story of the soldier, while at the same time illustrating aspects of the poems and functioning as an anti-war film in the bargain. The surprise, perhaps, is that the movie works as well as it does.
The film is a strange mix of the brilliant and the banal, the compelling and the tedious, but Jarman manages to keep his goals in focus throughout. Some scenes work brilliantly, and the evocation of the filth and mud is uncomfortably realistic. Other scenes—like a strange fantasy done as a silent film complete with heavy makeup in which (I think) war profiteers applaud the sacrifice of a soldier by a priest—manage to be awkward and disturbing at the same time, without ever being as powerful as obviously intended. The inclusion of Laurence Olivier (being impossibly Olivier-ish at his fussiest) feels more like a stunt than an inherent part of the film. Being a Jarman picture, the film is angry and sad, campy and weirdly devout, and is laced with casual homoeroticism throughout. It’s not one of Jarman’s best works, but it’s well worth seeing for the attempt alone.