09 April, 2006

Derek Jarman's 'Edward II'

This is a film by the late British director, released in 1991 (three years before his death), a loose adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's play of c. 1592. Although intended far more as an indictment of Thatcher's Britain than a depiction of fourteenth-century or Renaisance history, I thought it would be interesting to discuss it here.

Prior to watching the film, I fully expected to hate it. To my surprise, I didn't, but rather enjoyed it, though I found it very bizarre (whatever else Jarman was, he wasn't conventional). The film is not a straightforward chronological re-telling of the play, but more a series of scenes and fragmented images, framed by Edward's imprisonment in a water-logged dungeon, where he is closely watched by his jailer, Lightborn (played by Jarman's partner of the last few years of his life, Kevin Collins). Lightborn spends most of his time forging the 'red-hot poker' he will use to murder the king. The sets are bleak, concrete rooms with no decoration, and the costumes range from Edward's gold robe to Mortimer's military uniform to Isabella's beautiful gowns and (later) power suits. Edward and Gaveston even dance in pyjamas!

What I liked about the film:
Some of the scenes are very powerful, and my absolute favourite one is Edward and Isabella in bed together, in a room with bare plastered walls. Isabella is trying to make love to Edward, but he rejects her caresses and pushes her away - with frustration rather than cruelty, it seems - until she rolls off him. Edward then gets out of bed and bangs his head against the wall, making himself bleed, while Isabella stares at the ceiling. There are no words in this scene: the actors (Tilda Swinton and Steven Waddington, both superb throughout) communicate the characters' desperation through their eyes and movements.

I enjoyed the (possibly) 'happy ending' scene. We see Edward's hideously cruel murder by red-hot poker, but then - he awakes on the floor of his dungeon. The jailer Lightborn comes in - and throws the poker away in a pool. He then kisses Edward briefly, but tenderly, on the lips. Are we to understand that the scene of Edward's murder was simply a nightmare he had, and he doesn't die at all? Or is it a dream he's having at the moment of his death - a kind of wish-fulfilment? I'm not sure, but it seems possible at least that he survives.

Another good, though strange, scene, is the one where Queen Isabella kills Kent (Edward's half-brother), who has turned against Edward to follow Isabella and Mortimer and then changes sides again. She does it by biting into his neck, in front of her young son. Queen Isabella as vampire, who'd have thought it?!

Things I didn't like:
The scenes with Edward and Isabella's young son, the future Edward III, are excessively bizarre. At one point, he is wandering through the castle at night, and sees a large group of men, all naked, in a rugby scrum. I'm really not sure what this is supposed to mean. At the end of the film, Isabella and Mortimer are imprisoned in a cage, covered in flour, while Edward III dances on top of the cage. He is wearing high heels, earrings and make-up, and is dancing to the 'Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy' on his walkman. Interesting, but odd!

I thought the actors Andrew Tiernan (Gaveston) and Nigel Terry (Mortimer) both did a fine job, but I'm not sure about the characters. Gaveston is not at all likeable (to me, anyway) and I even found myself secretly sympathising with the barons, who want him exiled or dead, and Isabella, who wants to be with her husband. (Heresy on my part, to feel like this!!) Mortimer looks a bit like an SS general with his uniform and crewcut. He kills Spencer (aka Hugh Despenser) with his bare hands, spitting out 'girlboy' as he does so.

Things I'm not sure about:
Jarman presents Edward and Gaveston purely as the victims of homophobia, both killed (or perhaps not?) on the orders of brutal, militaristic barons who can't cope with their different lifestyle. Gay activists appear near the end, mourning the deposition of Edward and holding placards which call for gay rights. Jarman saturates his film with erotic elements which are not in the play - for example at the beginning, Gaveston reads a letter from Edward while sitting on a bed; behind him, two men make love. I certainly don't object to any of this in itself, but it does seem to have reinforced many people's belief that Edward was 'the only openly gay king of England', a victim of homophobia and nothing else. Of course, this is a work of art, not a realistic depiction of history, but generally it's films and plays that remain vivid in the mind long after dry history books have been forgotten. Look at the effect Braveheart has had on the public perception of Edward II.

I would certainly recommend the film, however, especially to anyone sick of the usual samey stuff churned out by Hollywood. Jarman was a brilliant filmmaker, and whether you love this film or hate it, it's worth watching.


Susan Higginbotham said...

It's been a couple of years since I've seen this, so my impressions are hardly fresh, but I remember being disappointed in it as a whole. I liked the scene at the beginning where Lightborn takes Gaveston's letter from Edward, who then proceeds to recite it word for word--indeed, I liked all of the scenes with Lightborn. But I found Gaveston here to be repellent (perhaps deliberately so?), and I found some scenes, like the naked rugby scum, to be wholly baffling. All in all, I thought that the seeds of a great modern-dress adaptation of Marlowe's play were laid here, but never sown.

I'll certainly watch it again sometime, though, just to see if my opinion has changed over the years. Have you ever seen the book about the making of the play? I think it's called Queer Edward II.

ilya said...

oh dear, sounds like another one of those modern directors that take an ancient story and bring it to these days... someone showed here once a story about the virgin mary and she was walking naked on the scene, smoking a cigarette... certainly original, but i guess i'm more of a classic stick-to-the-facts fan cause it's really not my style. i'm guessing this film wouldn't be either.

Anonymous said...

completely different to the BazLurman
Romeo and Juliet where he brings it up to date, it is more to make a statement than anything. His deliberate use of anachronism unites homosexuals throughout time to stand up to section 28 under thatcher adding more weight to Jarmans point of view. an utterly bizaare but lovable film. its clearly not supposed to be representing the facts, but rather to make a stand against homophobia and discover homosexual in the history from which it has been written out. i think the point is that history books are not sticking to the facts because Edward II would not have been able to express his homosexuality at this time and therefore both Marlowe to his limited capability and then Jarman to a more extreme level express for Edward II what he could not himself.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks for the insight, Grace - very interesting. I hadn't thought of it that way before.