a film by Derek Jarman
1993 | 69 mins | UK
›› Wittgenstein
a strikingly visual account of the celebrated philosopher.
Wittgenstein by Derek Jarman Perhaps it is of no surprise that the penultimate film by Derek Jarman should be yet another gay biopic, namely a work detailing the life of one Ludwig Wittgenstein, probably the greatest, certainly the most celebrated, philosopher of the 20th Century.

Only in undertaking this commission from Channel 4 and in spite of the dramatic lifestyle of its subject, Jarman faced the dilemma of how to bring to the screen the intellectual principles of philosophy; fascinating for some, tedious for many and downright boring to others. Then again and in the words of Wittgenstein screenwriter and radical literary theorist Terry Eagleton: "if a question can be put at all, it can also be answered" and Jarman's answer was to draw upon his artistic roots and drench the grey subject material in shades of vivid colour.

Wittgenstein by Derek Jarman And there was good reason as to why. For by now Jarman was in the final stages of his battle with AIDS and inparticular was confronting his rapidly declining eyesight. As secondary colours began to vanish, Jarman characteristically turned the situation around, shooting the piece almost entirely in primary, along the way producing a work high in costume drama, so as to misdirect your attention from the atrocious lack of funds for set design.

As ever, his commitment to the project was total, having delivered on a miniscule budget, let alone a tight two-week shooting schedule, the very being of a man who dedicated his life to the quest for the philosophical truth. And yet the truth that Wittgenstein equally faced was the nature of his sexuality and that of the contradiction of trying to live an open and honest life in an era where homosexuality in the main, was illegal. But then and at that time, such a contradiction was not limited to Wittgenstein alone.

The result is a bold and strikingly visual testament to the life and times of a tormented soul, one that is enhanced by the costumes of award-winning designer Sandy Powell and a cast that includes such school of Jarman players as Tilda Swinton, Michael Gough, John Quentin and Kevin Collins. And yet it is Karl Johnson in the title role who steals the show, delivering a breathtaking portrayal of a man who gave birth to a series of groundbreaking philosophical concepts. Only for all of the positives to be had, it remains a commissioned piece. In other words, had Jarman been given free reign to depict the life story of a gay philosopher, then I dare say he would almost certainly have chosen someone else.
available on DVD as part of the British Film Institute catalogue
starring: Karl Johnson, Michael Gough, Tilda Swinton, John Quentin, Kevin Collins, Clancy Chassay, Nabil Shaban,
Lynn Seymour with Sally Dexter, Jill Balcon, Gina Marsh, Vania del Borgo, Ben Scantlebury,
Howard Sooley, David Radzinowicz, Jan Latham-Koenig as The Wittgenstein Family
Copyright 2007 David Hall - www.gaycelluloid.com.
archive reference #010
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