Derek Jarman is best known in Australia for his more "mainstream" features (Sebastiane, Jubilee, and The Tempest) and as production designer on Ken Russell's Savage Messiah and The Devils. He has also worked extensively as a painter, stage designer, and producer of more experimental works (often originally shot on Super 8), including In The Shadow of the Sun which won the Silver Boomerang at the 1381 Melbourne Film Festival.
The Angelic Conversation is a fusion of many of Jarman's interests, and a clear demonstration of his ability to realise an ambitious project on limited cash resources. It also shows Jarman's fondness for films that grow organically. Shooting began, he explains, as a series of visual experiments, "filming people I like in places and spaces I like" (the places here are Dancing Ledge on the Dorset coast, and the Isle of Grain in the Thames Estuary). When funds were made available from the British Film Institute, it gave him the possibility of developing from this material a project he had long planned - a setting for a group of Shakespearean sonnets.
The original Super 8 material, which had been filmed at 3 frames per second, was first recorded on U-matic video for editing and later transferred directly to 35mm film stock. This allowed Jarman maximum control of the imagery and each composition is singularly arresting in its use of design elements, the subtlety acquired through the balance of light and shadow, and the often elusive application of colour.
There is no narrative- the film working indirectly through suggestions and allusions, as ambivalent as the sonnets themselves. At first sight the film is characterised by a system of repetition, but he Angelic Conversation never succumbs to monotony. The repetitions, one soon realises, are variations that serve to concentrate the attention and heighten the significance of small gestures: young men peer through windows, clamber over rocky terrain and anoint themselves with water and kisses. The climactic homo-erotic love scene achieves powerful effect just through chaste and tender touching and twining of hands.