07 April 2009

War Requiem

War Requiem Out There, But Good
By Kristin Battestella

At first, I wasn’t interested in seeing Derek Jarman’s War Requiem when it was released on DVD in late 2008. After watching the trailer online, I had a change of heart. Set to Benjamin Britten’s opus mass (itself inspired by the World War I poems of Wilfred Owen), the mostly dialogue-less War Requiem is uneven and bizarre; but no less beautiful and chock full of anti war sentiments.

Now, how can I summarize a film that begins with a speech from Laurence Oliver in his final performance and ends up with Tilda Swinton’s Nurse surviving the dust? War Requiem loosely follows a dramatized Wilfred Owen (Nathanial Parker) as he crosses paths with Swinton, a meaning well but misunderstood German Soldier (Sean Bean), and a creepy zealot named Abraham (Nigel Terry). War Requiem isn’t so much linear as a visual representation of Britten’s unaltered 1963 composition. As I said, I wouldn’t go for this type of film myself, but the charm of in your face music and pictures can’t be defined.
War RequiemReuniting most of his cast from 1986’s Caravaggio, Derek Jarman again uses Tilda Swinton’s (Michael Clayton, The Chronicles of Narnia) unique and striking look to his advantage. Asking your cast not to speak is a not easy, but Swinton’s mannerisms and talent relate the anguish of war and the haunting music perfectly. Her orange hair feels like the one bright spot amid all this violence and death, and Swinton rises and falls with the anguish of wartime hospital life.
We’re treated to Sir Laurence (Rebecca, Wuthering Heights) only briefly. He sets the pace of War Requiem with the opening poem ‘Strange Meeting’- the only words we hear before the music. His wheelchair bound Old Soldier reminds us of the frailty of humans, and how close we are to death before, after, and during battle. Likewise, the young, idealist Nathanial Parker (Inspector Lynley Mysteries) quickly becomes disillusioned with fighting, war, COs, and the enemy- as is his German compatriot Sean Bean (Goldeneye, Sharpe). The small, but talented cast shows their worth without words, but Bean’s character is particularly wasted- as most young soldiers are. His senseless death and bizarre afterlife scenes are somehow bittersweet and eerie. His brief, touching, and tragic scenes with Parker encompass War Requiem’s statement perfectly.
Along with the fine but silent cast, the segments of real war footage spliced into the narrative make War Requiem. Color, black and white, World War I through Vietnam-the big bombs, death, and trench warfare are perfectly in time and theme with Britten’s chorales, drums, and crescendos. In some ways, War Requiem might have been better were it just this crafty marriage between real imagery and music. Then again, a fully dramatic Great War piece with this cast would have been all right, too. Within such a short ninety-minute run time, however, the mix of both narrative and war collages strikes the audience in all ways. We react to the quiet, human moments of the cast-for nothing tugs a person’s heartstrings more than the sight of another human experiencing joy or pain. Although, if that fails in this desensitized day and age; Jarman’s bombardment of the horrors of war hits the audience with cold reality: despite time, technology, and loss of life, the battlefield does not change.
As beautiful as War Requiem is, it is also very ugly in many respects. Sure, we have the gritty, dirty, bloody war aspects from the archive footage and in the drama-but this is also a little film made very much on the cheap. Some of it is deliberately cold, dark, stark, and bare, but it’s a bit obvious that this is as much out of necessity as it is for artistic statement. The costumes and military gear look authentic enough, but the cast is made to look dirty, too. Sometimes I just want to rush up and scrub the television screen. Being made dirty and cheap in 1990 might also make War Requiem a tough viewing for folks used to technical masterpieces ala Saving Private Ryan.

Lovely as this mix of music and film is, War Requiem doesn’t get its score quite right. Softer, quiet moments in the music make for a lot of dead time onscreen. Do we need to see Tilda Swinton braiding her hair for a full five minutes? Some spots look like Jarman is trying too hard to make statements or be weird rather than using what the score is telling him. At other moments, the slow actions of the cast don’t match the booming music. Naturally, this is not the easiest musical composition to mirror, so whatever flaws War Requiem has are artistically forgivable. Maybe you don’t like the look, but the music is undeniable. If Fantasia is the perfect blend of visuals and music, then War Requiem is the underground stepchild. As unique and special as these examples are, I’m surprised more big spectacular orchestral films aren’t made. Is there a silent film Romeo and Juliet set to Montagues and Capulets out there? People like ballet, still, don’t they? What’s the difference?

It’s not perfect, but War Requiem is a lovely little mix of music, drama, war, and silent statements. Fans of Jarman no doubt love War Requiem, but anti gay audiences might not like some of the latent AIDS commentary here. Having said that, a serious classroom audience might be ripe for a critical viewing- What does War Requiem do right? Where is it wrong? What can we gain from it visually, musically, and socially? It’s been twenty years since War Requiem was made, and we still haven’t learned the lessons it offers. Avante garde and not for all, War Requiem is still a beautiful little film worthy of a look.


Traci Moore said...

Thanks for another fabulous review. Thoughtful, insightful and informative as always. I have yet to see the entire film, I've only seen only bits and pieces but your review really makes me want to see it now. Keepup the great work.

Kristin Battestella said...

Hi Traci! Thanks for stopping by!