MOVIES | Tilda Swinton dishes the dirt about Derek Jarman


It’s hard to imagine that famous Hollywood type Tilda Swinton hanging out with artsy, transgressive British director Derek Jarman—but here she is, working hand-in-glove with director Isaac Julien to produce a detailed memorial to her longtime friend and collaborator.

derek, a documentary directed by isaac julien. playing february 20 at the walker art center, 1750 hennepin ave., minneapolis. admission $8. for information, see

The film is built around a 1991 interview with Jarman—previously unaired—letting Jarman narrate his own eulogy-cum-biography, from his abuse-scarred childhood through his last years, when he slowly died of AIDS in his cottage in Dungeoness, England. Jarman’s interview is extensive and the famed director comes across as extremely honest, critically examining his own career and artistic works. This is decidedly a good thing for the film because Swinton’s occasional interjection of her own memories of their friendship and work together verge on the theatrical and overwrought (my favorite, about the current studio system: “the formula merchants are out in force, looking for guaranteed product”). With one exception, these don’t add a terrible amount of insight, other than that Swinton was terribly fond of all the crazy things she and Jarman used to get up to. That one exception, though, is spot-on. “You were indeed,” she says about Jarman, “the ideal Thatcherite filmmaker.”

Derek guides us through this central dynamic in Jarman’s artistic life, confronting the homophobic and reactionary currents in 70s and 80s Britain with gleefully homoerotic films like Sebastiane, punk-tinged works like Jubilee, or thoughtful pieces like Edward II. This kind of context—including how Jarman’s background as a painter influenced his filmmaking—not only serves as good background for seeing Jarman’s other films playing at the Walker, but forms a kind of counter-history to the Thatcher/Reagan years. Despite Tilda Swinton’s over-the-top commentary, she and Isaac Julien have crafted a revealing documentary that’s worth seeing.

James Sanna ( is a freelance writer and an intern covering education issues for the Daily Planet.