Derek Jarman's queer king

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Wednesday July 11, 2018
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Derek Jarman was one of the leaders of the New Queer Cinema in the late 1980s-90s, whose innovative work intertwined culture and politics. His controversial movies were meant to shock viewers with his anger and social criticism. His most accessible film arrived in his raw and captivating interpretation of Christopher Marlowe's play "Edward II" (1991), which has been digitally restored in a pristine Blu-ray version just released by Film Movement. His Edward is a biting metaphor for the repressive homophobia in Britain during Margaret Thatcher's final years and her Conservative government's support of Clause 28. He draws a parallel between Edward's secular martyrdom and the persecution of modern LGBTQ people, reinventing Marlowe's play.

The plot is simple, serving as a skeletal framework. Edward II (Steven Waddington) is crowned in 1307 after the death of his father. He arrives with his working-class lover Piers Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan), rejecting his wife Isabella (Tilda Swinton) and neglecting his royal duties. He gives regal titles and access to the treasury to Gaveston, both of them indulging in a life of ease and pleasure. Torn with jealousy, Isabella conspires with scheming Earls and Barons as well as her lover, the sadomasochistic General Mortimer (Nigel Terry), to convince Edward to banish Gaveston, which he reluctantly does. Eventually Mortimer tortures and murders Gaveston, and with the help of Isabella, plots a military coup to oust Edward. Edward is taken prisoner and murdered, impaled with a hot poker.

In Jarman's eyes, both Edward and Gaveston are early martyrs for gay liberation. While Gaveston is being killed, Jarman intercuts images of the gay activist resistance group OutRage carrying signs reading "Gay Desire Is Not a Crime" and "Get Your Filthy Laws Off Our Bodies," and clashing with police. In a romantic episode just before Gaveston is banished, singer Annie Lennox serenades the lovers with Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye" as they dance in their pajamas. Jarman has a penchant for rewriting history as queer.

Designer Sandy Powell uses clothes to express style and politics. The ruling class is dressed as a corporate board of directors, and Isabella dresses in elegant designer gowns to signal her wealth and distance from Edward. All the characters vary from modern dress to medieval costumes, only one aspect of Jarman's use of creative anachronisms in the film. His staging is innovative: four blank walls serve as stand-in for a medieval castle, baroque visuals and lighting serve as mood-setters.

Tilda Swinton was Jarman's muse, appearing in five of his films as both creative collaborator and actress. She's splendid here, conveying a woman starved for love, maintaining a veneer covering sexual passions. Her Isabella could have been a caricature, yet despite her desire to wreak vengeance, we feel pity for her. Waddington and Tiernan are best in their love scenes together, determined to fight the tyrannical forces arrayed against them.

Jarman was the first celebrity in Britain to reveal his HIV status publicly, speaking poignantly about his experiences, giving a much-needed face to the disease, proclaiming he wasn't a victim. Though the film doesn't mention AIDS, it's not a stretch to interpret the OutRage sequences as PWAs fighting against the medical and federal establishments, showing disrespect for authority, persevering, and not surrendering to a death sentence. Sadly, Jarman died of the disease in 1994 at age 52.

To his credit, Jarman is not unwilling to present his gay characters in an unflattering light. Edward is weak and reckless, and Gaveston is dissolute and opportunistic. Yet Jarman is also hopeful, adding an alternative ending where Edward's execution is just a nightmare. He awakens to his executioner throwing away his deadly instrument, and kissing the man he was supposed to kill. Also in the final scene, we see Edward's son, in drag wearing lipstick and earrings, playing Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" on his Walkman, prancing on top of a cage incarcerating Isabella and Mortimer. The androgynous Edward III will not surrender.

Is "Edward II" still potent? Jarman's defiance is as relevant today as it was in 1991. Watching "Edward II" reminds us of how AIDS robbed us of artistic geniuses. A viewer can't help but be overwhelmed by melancholy and admiration for Jarman's elegant, scathing inventiveness.