Derek Jarman’s latest is an immaculately lensed, intellectual joke that’s more a divertissement than a substantial addition to his quirky oeuvre. Shot on legit-like minimalist sets, the gabby but sophisticated riff on the tortured life of Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is a natural for fests and small-scale playoff. Gay subtext will win it extra dates.
Heavy-duty behind-the-camera roster includes producer Tariq Ali, well-known for political programs on England’s Channel 4, and co-scripter Terry Eagleton, an Oxford U. prof who’s an authority on literary theory and criticism.
Latter’s input in untangling Wittgenstein’s teachings on language and philosophy seems considerable, with Jarman supplying the visual framework and cinematic stamp.
Pic’s opening, with young Ludwig (confidently played by 12-year-old Clancy Chassay) introing the members of his ill-fated family, promises a Ken Russell-like irreverence that never really develops. With the appearance of the adult Wittgenstein (Karl Johnson), things settle down into a series of talky tableaux against black backdrops.
Though the script often demands a basic knowledge of Wittgenstein’s work to appreciate fully all the nuances, the general progression of his life and thoughts is clear enough.
Born into a rich Viennese family in 1889, he quickly fled to Britain, establishing his rep at Cambridge, where he fell in with other great thinkers like Bertrand Russell (Michael Gough) and famed economist John Maynard Keynes (John Quentin). He died in 1951 from prostate cancer.
Philosophical sparring among the trio takes up much of the running time, with light relief provided by Russell’s snooty mistress, Lady Ottoline Morrell (Jarman regular Tilda Swinton, in top histrionic form), and occasional chats on the meaning of life with a green martian (Nabil Shaban).
Running parallel with the intellectual stuff is an exploration of Wittgenstein’s repressed homosexuality, per his friendship with a handsome, working-class student (Kevin Collins) and Keynes, portrayed as a flouncing gay.
On this level, the pic can also be read as an HIV-positive allegory, with Russell’s worries about Wittgenstein “infecting too many young men with his teachings.” (Jarman is open about the fact that he himself is a carrier.)
Apart from the occasional homosexual kiss, there’s nothing on a par with Jarman’s previous “Edward II” to worry ratings boards. Language-wise, it’s also clean as a whistle.
Johnson, who played Ariel in Jarman’s earlier “The Tempest,” draws a persuasive portrait of the screwed-up thinker, a self-confessed doubter of conventional philosophical wisdom who also loved Carmen Miranda and Betty Hutton musicals.
The humor, when it comes, is dry and self-effacing, with Gough, Swinton and Quentin getting the peachier parts.
Shot in two weeks in a London studio for less than T300,000 ($ 450,000), the pic is always visually alert, with appropriate costuming by Sandy Powell, razor-sharp lighting by James Welland and varied classical fragments by music director Jan Latham-Koenig. Trim running time is a further plus.