Wilfred Owen was killed in the last week of the First World War; he was one of the most evocative poets of that conflict and here we see passages from his life dramatised to the accompaniment of the War Requiem, written by Benjamin Britten. We see the lifeless body of Owen (Nathaniel Parker) as his nurse (Tilda Swinton) stands over it, paralysed with anguish and only able to let out a cry in the face of a death that by all rights should not have occured to a man of twenty-seven years. But death is what war is inextricably linked to...
When director Derek Jarman offered his interpretation of Britten's celebrated work, he might have seemed a self-consciously arty choice, but the imagery he created was undeniably impressive despite it not being everyone's idea of the most appropriate. Nevertheless, he came across as a sensitive interpreter of the music, even if that sense of a fringe theatre production peculiar to him was by no means absent here. Some might have thought he would have been straightjacketed by being tied to the requiem, but this was not necessarily the case.
The most overhwhelming feeling of this film is of sorrow, of needless waste of human life cut down in its prime, a cliché perhaps, but not one entirely without relevance. Jarman undeniably conjures up strong and sincere visuals, with Owen, whose poetry is heard at the start, represented by Parker as he is recruited, goes to war, and is killed. Laurence Olivier, in his last film, appears as an old soldier now living in a nursing home, and the nurse is played by Swinton, as if she were an eternal source of comfort in the face of death from wars past to the present day.
Even the scenes that have a lighter aspect are brought soberly down to earth by the seriousness of the tone, so a sequence where showgirls entertain the wounded troops in hospital, leading to a game of blind man's buff, gives way to more misery not only by its context but by what happens afterward. There are flashbacks to Owen's childhood, shot in Super 8 in the familiar Jarman fashion, but it is not just his story that concerns the film, as there is a universality to the characters, including as it does the Unknown Soldier (Owen Teale) and a German soldier (Sean Bean) who both meet tragic ends.
In the main this is mournful stuff, helped in no small way by the power of the score, but after a while Jarman stops feeling sorry for the fallen and begins to display anger in a jarring montage of dead and injured soldiers from conflicts past and present, illustrating that war is always with us no matter how peaceful it might seem in other, more less dangerous parts of the world. Lastly, the tone once again alters into a more transcending area, with Swinton, who rarely looked more soulful as she does here, witnessing a more religious conclusion to what we have seen. It's true that these final scenes are very much a matter of taste, but you could easily apply that view to the rest of War Requiem, though if anything Jarman finds himself sentimentalising his subject.
[Second Sight's Region 2 Special Edition DVD has a commentary from the producer and featurettes as extras.]