Friday, 19 January 2018

Wittgenstein (1993)

"So what are you planning to do with the rest of your life?"

"I shall start by committing suicide"

Much more playful than I imagined, Derek Jarman's penultimate film attempts to tell the life of the Viennese-born, Cambridge educated academic Ludwig Wittgenstein, a man believed to be one of the greatest philosophers of all time, yet whose on relationship with philosophy was strained because of his dislike of the subject and his belief that it was simply a by-product of misunderstandings, the root cause of which lies in the faults of our language to effectively communicate what we feel. 

At least I think anyway. What I know about Wittgenstein I could frankly write on the back of a fag packet. What I do know is that Jarman's film is remarkably inventive. Shot in the modern theatrical style (a lack of budget meant black drapes dress the empty sound stage Jarman assembles his cast upon) the film depicts the life of its subject through a series of vignettes, told in the context of Wittgenstein's homosexuality. 

Karl Johnson delivers a career highlight performance in the lead role. Looking remarkably like the man himself, he plays the full gamut of emotions from intuitive thinker to difficult genius - a man whose life is tainted by his privileged upbringing and his academic abilities, when all he seemingly ever wanted was the humble, simple life of a working man. He's well supported by fellow Jarman regulars Michael Gough as Bertrand Russell (perfect casting!) and Tilda Swinton Lady Ottoline Morrell. There's also the peculiar inclusion of a little green martian into Wittgenstein's life story, and this character - arguing the existence of a post box with Wittgenstein's younger self (Clancy Chassay) - is played by Nabil Shaban, effectively recreating his Doctor Who villain Sil, albeit with a better nature and a far less repulsive character. 

Possibly the first Jarman film not to truly wow me (I suspect that I perhaps needed to have a better appreciation of Wittgenstein and his works beforehand) but what did wow me nonetheless was his decision to shoot the film in bold primary colours thanks to Sandy Powell's exceptional costume design. That Jarman was losing his sight to the AIDS virus that ultimately killed him makes his desire to make his film so colourful all the more poignant.

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