The Last of England
August 1987 ((Edinburgh International Film Festival) — 88 minutes, color and black & white, Super 8 to video to 35mm, aspect ratio 1.78:1 — Experimental
Jarman’s 6th feature, both apocalyptic and lyrical, is an audacious vision of 1980s Britain.
The Last of England is one of Jarman’s most boldly experimental, mesmerizing works, and important works. It’s an intensely personal vision of Britain descending into chaos, which manages to be at once apocalyptic and lyrical – and nowhere more so than in the climactic sequence featuring Jarman’s frequent collaborator, Tilda Swinton (who also starred in Orlando, The Deep End, and Avenger’ Endgame). The Last of England marks a turning point in Jarman’s life: He had recently been diagnosed as HIV-positive, and his father died a few months later. Jarman digs deeply into his family’s past, even as he draws on an eclectic range of influences, from history and literature to painting and cinema, to create this uniquely original work. It won at the 1988 Berlin Film Festival both the Teddy Award for Best Feature Film and the C.I.C.A.E. Award / Forum of New Cinema for Jarman; it also received the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Independent / Experimental Film and Video Award. But allusions and awards aside, The Last of England is a powerfully direct, in-your-face experience which you may find yourself thinking and talking about for a long time. It knocked me out when I first saw it; and on each re-viewing, fascinating new connections emerge.
This film challenges us on every level: cinematic, aesthetic, political, sexual, even spiritual. It’s both hypnotically poetic and savagely critical, and a lot more. I first experienced it as a pure sensory rush, roughly analogous to, say, the climactic sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But now it seems ever more rich and strange and, despite the protests of its detractors who label it “incoherent,” unified in revelatory ways.
Like all works of art, this film can not be paraphrased into words alone, despite the wonderful book which Jarman wrote about its creation, Kicking the Pricks. (Jarman went with that more playfully defiant title after he had initially published it in 1987, to tie in with the picture’s release, as The Last of England.) This film is uniquely, defiantly, and mesmerizingly its own creation – yet it draws on so much, and brings so much together, that part of its allure comes from trying to make sense of it – not to force an interpretation upon it, but to open ourselves to its diverse layers, from a tattooed male prostitute at the beginning who tramples, and then has sex with, a life-size reproduction of a Caravaggio ‘cupid’ painting, to the film’s climax in which a bride, so insane with grief at the murder of her husband (and, by extension, her ordered world), that she rises in power – without uttering a single word – to the level of Greek tragedy: a Medea on the post-industrial, and post-apocalyptic, river Thames.
I want to emphasize that your individual reading of this film is the most important. Even Jarman, in talking about this most personal work, has said the same. Except where noted, the following and all Jarman quotations are from Kicking the Pricks: “The Last of England is not as manipulative as a conventional feature; you know – jump here, be frightened here, laugh…. Apart from being stuck with my film for 85 minutes, my audiences have much greater freedom to interpret what they are seeing, and because of the pace, to think about it. I have my own ideas but they are not the beginning or the end…. I learn an immense amount from audiences. I can go backwards and forwards across a a shot 30 times and then see the film another 20 or 30 times and still miss things. For me the voice of the audience is interpretive, teaching me what I have done. I don’t work for a passive audience, I want an active audience…. In any case audiences are much more adventurous than is given credit….”
I share my own ideas about this picture, not as any would-be definitive reading (the very nature of the film makes such absolutism impossible), but in an attempt to look at some of what may be its deeper structures, which both give it form as well as a mythic, even universal, significance.
Jarman’s use of symbolism is at once intuitive, shocking, and rigorous. For instance, from the opening moments of the film there are controlled clusters of images – especially of light/fire and water – which play off each other in organic ways, even as they build philosophical, political, and spiritual associations. Of course, there’s the danger of looking at the film too literally, and hence reducing its power. This is one film which you don’t want to try to shrink-to-fit into some narrow pre-determined “concept;” it’s far richer, and stranger, than that; and ultimately it is the film which you – personally – make it by merging your own experiences and ideas with Jarman’s.
Because of the unique nature of this extraordinary film – which, more than most pictures, deserves a comprehensive book-length study – I’ve come up with an approach different from that in my other reviews. After briefly putting The Last of England in a larger cultural context, I’m going to focus on just one brief, but revealing and emblematic, part: the opening two and a half minutes, then broadly relate that to what follows, especially the final scene. As we’ll see, from the very first shot Jarman introduces his major images/ techniques/ ideas (the three are intimately bound together, as part of his artistry), which he will thread throughout the entire picture. I hope you find this (unusual) micro-then-macro approach useful, not only in keeping this review to a would-be manageable length but, more importantly, in constructing your own take on this film. Onwards!
- A Close Look at the First Minute of The Last of England
- The Second Minute
- The Final Sequence
Let’s briefly put this film in its larger cinematic, cultural and, for Jarman, personal context. For all of its originality, it is a sterling example of experimental filmmaking, a 75-year-old movement which is itself part of the tradition of Modernism, begun around 1850. Experimental film is one of the four main forms of cinema, along with documentary, animation, and (traditional) narrative fiction films. As with Modernism in all of its incarnations, from painting to literature, experimental film wants to sweep away what it considers false and wrong, and create an alternative vision which is more authentically responsive to human life. It will push to the limit every cinematic resource – performance, sound, image, movement, and theme – in its attempt to redefine both the medium and society. If some viewers are shocked (I certainly was, the first time I saw The Last of England), well, that’s the price of the ticket.
The film’s production history extended from August 1986 through early 1987 (its year of release). This film encompassed two of the most crucial events in Jaman’s life: in December 1986 he was diagnosed as being HIV-positive, and in 1987 his father, with whom he had always had a tense relationship, died. As expressed in the following quotation, Jarman reacted with strength and equanimity to his diagnosis – and in the ambiguous final sentence he may be thinking about his father: “The virus produced a quiet space in all the hubbub, achieved a subtle alienation. Dame Perspective, the obsessive mistress. What dark shadows remain to be explored? You only find secrets in the dark, there you can touch them, but they remain hidden, Nature loves to hide.” (emphasis in the original). Jarman decided that he would be completely open about his condition, and AIDS became a central concern in works. His last seven years were a prodigious period, with directing five more feature films and several music videos, painting, writing, gardening (which he considered an art form), campaigning for GLBT and human rights, traveling, exhibiting his films and paintings, winning numerous awards – and all the while sharing a loving life with Kevin Collins, whom he met in 1987. Considering the powerful but bleak vision of The Last of England, it is good to know both that Jarman in his life was able to transcend its world view, and that the film’s production was largely a happy one.
After the eight years he had just spent meticulously planning and making Caravaggio, one of his most acclaimed and popular films, Jarman here worked improvisatorily, conceptualizing the film but never writing an actual screenplay. He incorporated some of his ideas from the wildly ambitious, and prohibitively expensive, unmade picture Neutron (“a trailer for the End of the World”), based on Jung’s psycho-mythic study Aeon, the New Testament book of Revelation, and his bleak assessment of the Reagan/Thatcher era’s nuclear politics [I must say, Wow!]. There was no casting for The Last of England; he simply asked friends and lovers to take part when they could. Jarman shot most of it himself at selected locations in London, often near the Thames (the film is literally and metaphorically filled with water), and Liverpool. There was only one week of formal shooting, in November at the Victoria Docks, an area which Jarman described – in what’s also a key to the film’s imagery – as “miles of desolation with the odd post-modern office building.”
Incredibly, Jarman shot the entire picture – for reasons of economy, ease of production, and aesthetic effect – with a small Nizo Super 8 camera, then transferred the footage to video for editing, then re-transferred it to 35mm film for theatrical release. As he notes, “You could achieve effects on video which would have cost a fortune on film…. Blown up to 35mm, the quality is something quite new, like stained glass, the film glows with wonderful colours. The video gives you a pallette like a painter, and I find the result beautiful. Most 35mm looks pretty hard and brassy in comparison. The system produces blacks like the lead in stained glass, shadowy and mysterious, even when the sun is blazing. Much of The Last Of England seems to be filmed at sundown, Eliot’s violet hour.” (Not to get too ‘footnotey,’ but the “violet hour” quotation is Jarman’s only acknowledgment of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which seems the single most important inspiration for this film, as we’ll see at various points below.)
This film perfectly illustrates the difference between creative improvisation and ‘throwing things together.’ Jarman clearly knew what he wanted (note the controlled clusters of images), but he was very comfortable in using what he could find, whether it was home movies (in fact, two different sets of them: the 1920s black and white footage by his grandfather, the color footage from 1939 by his father), or the services of the brilliantly gifted Tilda Swinton, who had recently co-starred in Caravaggio, her film debut. Her shooting schedule for another production only allowed her a few hours on one afternoon: yet the resultlng ‘Tilda’s dance’ provided this film’s shattering climax. (Jarman’s on-the-fly production schedule brings to mind that of Welles’s Othello, which is another masterpiece of cinematic imagery, in which Welles created sublime visual and aural equivalents for Shakespeare’s verse.)
For a multimedia artist as great as Jarman, cinematic and literary imagery come together in many ways. In discussing some of the film’s ancient roots in English literature, and world mythology, Jarman also gives us insight into its basic formal device. He notes that it is like a “dream allegory [in which] the poet wakes in a visionary landscape where he encounters personifications of psychic states. Through these encounters he is healed. Jubilee was such a healing fiction, it harked back to [the medieval English mystical poems] Pearl and Piers Plowman. Which was also a socio-political tract….. The Last Of England is in the same form, though this time I have put myself into the center of the picture…. I wrote no script, it is held together by the presence of the author. The audience should be able to ‘read’ the film fairly easily. [Different scenes show us that this] man is destitute, this is a marriage. Its structure suggests a journey: pages turn in a book bringing with them new turning in directions, building up an atmosphere without entering into traditional narrative….”
Jarman has also talked about the film’s personal origins, both autobiographical and collective: “The film travels from one psychological state to another, even its ambient structures didn’t stop that, it recalls things that happened to us all: my generation’s trip to America and all that that implied, the escape from our ruined back yard, the trip back in time with the family, the inherited terrorists, the assault on situations like marriage, the workmen building prisons for us (the houses in Liverpool are built behind barbed wire). Around the corner lurks a destroyer, who can be unleashed at any moment…. The film is an attic… full of the junk of our history, of memory and so on; there’s a hurricane blowing outside, I open the doors and the hurricane blows through; everything is blown around, it’s a cleansing, the whole film is a cleansing. I need a very firm anchor in that hurricane, the anchor is my inheritance, not my family inheritance, but a cultural one….“
As we explore the film’s opening minutes, we will bring in connections, as they arise, to literature, painting, cinema, history, myth and religion, and more – which, of course, you should feel welcome to consider or ignore, in your personal interpretation of the film.
A Close Look at the First Minute of The Last of England
The film begins late at night, with Jarman alone in his real-life studio (at a warehouse in London’s Bankside district). He sits at his sprawling workbench – like the film itself, densely crowded but organized – with the offscreen clock chiming four. The opening two and a half minutes, which we’re focusing on, repeatedly cross-cut between Jarman writing in his journal and, in two different locations, a shirtless young man (played by Spring – born Mark Adley). In some dank nondescript corner, Spring prepares to shoot up (presumably heroin); and in daylight, in a trash-strewn yard, he stomps on and then has sex with a full-size reproduction of Caravaggio’s 1602 painting “Amor Vincit Omnia” (‘love conquers all’). The first section, before the ‘stomping’ scene, includes all of the below narration; the second section – without any voice over – is pure image and sound.
Before the stomping scene begins, we hear an off-screen narrator (voiced by Nigel Terry, who appeared in many Jarman films, including the title role in Caravaggio; also featured in John Boorman’s 1981 Excalibur and Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 Troy). The narrator, Jarman’s alter ego, pops up only a handful of times throughout the film. (The text below is presented exactly as it is spoken in the film; [brackets] indicate where it differs from Jarman’s published versions in Kicking the Pricks: the first ‘paragraph’ below he titles “4 AM,” the second “Imperial Embers.”) This initial prose poem is both representative of the others and eerily fabulous: “Imprisoned memories prowl thro’ the dark. Fuck it. They scatter like rats… [Dead souls. Rat a pat a patter into the silence.] Ashes drift in the back of the skull. A goblin parts the [curtains] with a slant-eyed chuckle. Panic. I blink as he vanishes into the shadows, hint of [prophetic] cats-eyes. The dust settles thick, so by five when I stagger to the freezing bathroom I leave footprints for others to excavate. They say the Ice Age is coming, the weather’s changed. The air stutters tic tic tic tic, rattle of death-watch beetle on sad slate roofs. [The ice in your glass is radioactive, Johnny. Outside in the leaden hail] the swan of Avon dies a syncopated death. …[A] black frost grips July by the throat. We pull the […] curtains tight over the dawn, and shiver by empty grates. The household gods have [departed], no one remembers quite when. Poppies and corncockle have long been forgotten here, like the boys who died in Flanders, their names erased by a late frost [that] clipped the village cross. Spring lapped the fields in arsenic green, the oaks died this year. On every green hill mourners stand, and weep for The Last Of England.”
This passage reminds us that Jarman is not only, arguably, one of the greatest filmmakers, and stage and cinema designers, of the past half century, but also a master of language, both as a poet and prose writer (he has several extraordinary volumes of memoirs). If you’ll allow me to pop on my erstwhile English Literature major’s cap, notice Jarman’s command of rhythm, how the text rushes headward, carrying us along, despite the startling shifts of imagery, from superstition (“goblin”) to science (“radioactive”), and tone, from fairly traditional twentieth century metaphors (“Imprisoned memories prowl thro’ the dark”) to in-your-face slang (“Fuck it”). Jarman is also brilliant at employing the sound-shape of words, forcing monosyllables against polysyllables (“The ice in your glass is radioactive”), and open vowels against stark consonants (“The air stutters tic tic tic tic”). All of these verbal devices and themes, as we will see, connect to the film as a whole, and have parallels in his use of visual imagery, music, sound, and all types of movement.
Also notable in this text is how he moves with the fewest words to the broadest possible scope; this again parallels his larger techniques throughout the film, which transform simple images and sounds into an immensely evocative whole. While anyone can drop allusions to anything, Jarman does so with revealing eclecticism and resonance. We journey from a possible new Ice Age, at once recalling the distant past and the onrushing future, to Virgil’s Aeneid (in the phrase “The household gods have departed” – one of the few phrases he repeats in a later narration: both that ancient epic poem and this film show the horrific destruction of a society, but with a handful of survivors setting sail in search of a new home), to Shakespeare (aka ‘the Bard of Avon’) and Modernist poetry’s high priest, T.S. Eliot (Jarman’s “swan of Avon dies a syncopated death” recalls the line in Eliot’s “The Waste Land”: “O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag— / It’s so elegant / So intelligent”), to poet Wilfred Owen (one of “the boys who died in Flanders” in World War I), whose works inspired composer Benjamin Britten’s choral masterpiece, the War Requiem, which became Jarman’s next film. (In the narration which continues, just after the section we’re focusing on here, Jarman makes rapid fire, and strikingly apt, references to the classic opening line of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” (1956): “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…”; and the closing lines of Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” (1925): “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.” Also noteworthy is that, from Virgil and Shakespeare to Ginsberg and Britten, all of the artists referenced, spanning two millennia, were gay or bisexual: on one level, the proudly gay Jarman draws comprehensively, but subtly, throughout the entire film on works by LGBTQ-identified artists in painting, music, literature, and cinema.
Jarman’s resonant web of original images and literary allusions reminds us that he stands with only two other artists – Jean Cocteau and Pier Paolo Pasolini (who were also gay) – as a poet of both verbal and cinematic language. As Jarman noted, “The Last Of England works with image and sound, a language which is nearer to poetry than prose. It tells its story quite happily in silent images, in contrast to a word-bound cinema….” To which I’d add, “word-bound” no, but literary – in a wholly cinematic way – yes.
The allusions to Ginsberg and Eliot provide two important keys to this film, and suggest its place in a larger cultural tradition which encompasses all artistic media. The politically and sexually apocalyptic “Howl” defines the turmoil of the 1950s Beat Generation (itself a reflection of America’s violently repressed nature during the paranoiac “witch hunt” decade), even as it gives full-throated voice to hidden gay life. Jarman clearly saw the connections between that era and Britain’s Thatcher decade, and used his film as a defiant, yet poetic, “barbaric yawp” (to borrow a memorable phrase from Walt Whitman, Ginsberg’s main man) of protest and liberation.
While Ginsberg’s delirious, and subversive, homoeroticism is reflected in almost every frame of The Last of England, the influence of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is even more pervasive, but on a deeper structural, imagistic, and thematic level. Despite the fact that Jarman never refers to the poem by title, his picture seems almost an (unofficial) cinematic adaptation of “The Waste Land,” translating it not only into a new medium but a different historical, and artistic, era.
Both “The Waste Land” and The Last of England were created at painfully defining moments in their authors’ lives, which brought their same-sex orientation to the fore: Eliot’s lover’s death, Jarman’s HIV diagnosis. Ultra-conservative (but fascinating) poet Ezra Pound persuaded Eliot to make massive cuts to the first draft, including the removal of virtually all of the overtly homoerotic content. Ironically, the poem began as an elegy to Eliot’s French lover, Jean Verdenal, who had been killed in World War I. As Eliot became older, and increasingly devout, he abjured his ‘secret’ homosexuality, to the point where he brought a lawsuit to silence a scholar exploring it.. Intriguingly, it could be argued that the published version of “The Waste Land” – whose 433 lines defined not only Modernism but, arguably, the literature of its century – is not only an apocalyptic (literally ‘revealing’) gloss on the mystical quest for the Holy Grail but an ‘anti-revealing’ attempt to stuff Eliot’s homoeroticism into the closet and nail the door shut. In any event, while Jarman’s film is one of the most intensely personal I’ve ever seen, “The Waste Land” seems the primary cultural inspiration behind it, in both imagery and even its underlying mythic structure. Both works are structured around elemental imagery – earth, air, fire, and water – with each of its first four sections of “The Waste Land” corresponding to one of those elements; Jarman’s film is primarily structured with images of fire and water, but earth and air play important ‘supporting roles.’ Eliot’s fifth, and final, section, “What the Thunder Said,” brings the elements together: its opening lines could be a dead-on imagistic summary of The Last of England: “After the torchlight red on sweaty faces / After the frosty silence in the gardens / After the agony in stony places / The shouting and the crying / Prison and place and reverberation / Of thunder of spring over distant mountains…”
In more general terms, Eliot’s poem, like Jarman’s film, is defined by dizzying shifts in time, location, and character (or psychological) focus – but always with the “unreal city” of London as a point of return; its radical alternation of tone, from elegiac to satirical to prophetic; and the underlying mythic journey of a quest for healing and spiritual wholeness. its vast, dissonant range of allusions to world cultures from ancient to modern, religions from Hindu to Judeo-Christian, music from medieval to jazz. To keep the length of this (lengthy) review down, I’ve only outlined the most essential connections between Eliot and Jarman, but you can find many more in “The Waste Land” itself.
Now, let’s look at the most fundamental connection between the two works. Paradoxically, a primary organizing principle for this film is disorganization, or, more accurately, seeming disorganization. The technique, not uncommon in modern works – from “The Waste Land’ to rock music videos (of whose rapid cuts and extreme visuals Jarman was a master) – is called bricolage. It is the creation of a new work from a diverse range of available materials. In The Last of England they range from old home movies to newly staged scenes, allusions to art history (Caravaggio, and several more to come), literature (a half-dozen authors, all gay/bisexual, in just the first narration), cinema (by both Jarman and other filmmakers), history (his grandfather’s and father’s personal footage of their home life, World War II, and Pakistan: Jarman’s father helped establish the Pakistan Air Force), contemporary events (the 1982 Falklands War; satirical portraits of Thatcher and the royal family, all black silk dresses and machine guns), and a monstrous future (masses of displaced people waiting and waiting at the docks; commandos and terrorists; the sky on fire). Jarman brings together this phantasmagoric collection – then gives us the freedom to make sense of it as we will (he wants an “active audience”). These eclectic bits and pieces are ultimately unified around a central core of image-ideas, as we have already begun to see. But even on a first viewing – and if we’ve heard nothing about this picture – we intuit the ‘rightness’ of Jarman’s images, no matter how bizarrely contradictory they may seem.
Let’s see how Jarman connects his spoken text to the film’s larger themes. Look at the first few phrases: on one level, this film is about Jarman trying to come to terms with, and hence free, “Imprisoned memories” of both his own family and, on a larger scale, of England — but like the (purposefully) fragmentary nature of this film, his understanding “scatter[s] like rats.” Ultimately, the film is a ‘revelation’ or, if you prefer Jarman’s playful yet sinister goblin metaphor, a “part[ing of] the curtains.” While Jarman certainly knew that ‘apocalypse’ derives from the Greek word for ‘uncovering,’ he may also be giving a nod to the climax of The Wizard of Oz. There, the tyrannical pseudo-deity is revealed as the creation of a silly little man, hidden by a curtain, with a gift for using smoke and mirrors: Jarman saw a straight line from Oz’s Prof. Marvel to England’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Jarman will look behind the surface of things, and search out what is really back there, and hence inside us all – and he’ll do it all “with a slant-eyed chuckle.” One of his saving graces is his self-knowing irony, which keeps this film from puffing itself up with flatulent self-importance. For instance, Jarman has Nigel Terry deliver the text in a breathless, overly-inflected style which can only be called hammy. That self-mocking undercuts the febrile Modernist poetic style, as well as the apocalyptic imagery. At the same time, Terry’s delivery fits with Jarman’s arch depiction of himself – raised eyesbrows, nervous smoking, scratching and all: let’s not forget that it’s a maddeningly sleepless night.
But The Last of England is much more than this spoken text; it uses, in original and powerful ways, all of cinema’s resources to embody its vision.
The film begins in complete darkness, with simple white text on a black background. The only sound is the quiet whir of a movie projector. As the credits end, we hear a clock loudly chiming four as we cut to the first image.
The initial shot is both striking and subtle: an extreme high-angle black-and-white shot of Jarman at his desk. Although this film is pure Jarman (not least because throughout the film we return to him, and his narration, as well as various childhood home movies), the first image we see is from a non-human viewpoint. Is it some higher agency (at least a few divine and semi-divine beings crop up later), or just a bug on the ceiling (there are several insects in this film)? Regardless of the source of this ambiguous perspective, we are literally looking down at the filmmaker, encompassing him in his wider environment, where home and work and art all intermingle – as in the film as a whole. The shot is also compositionally dynamic, sharply divided from lower left to upper right by a diagonal, with the left bathed in light, the right in darkness, and Jarman and his journal a little off-center (but leaning towards the brightness). This reflects the film’s larger pull between light and darkness, often represented by fire and liquids. Water, for instance, is usually depicted in dark hues or black; and in a few seconds we will see our first instance of this ongoing ‘liquid motif,’ with the pitch-black ink into which Jarman dips his pen. But first, we cut to the second shot: a head-on close-up of Jarman, his face bisected by a crescent of light/darkness. Now cut to an extreme close-up of Jarman tapping his fingers, as though impatient for inspiration.
No sooner does the voice-over come out with the narration’s first two words (“Imprisoned memories…”) than we have a match cut to a fragmented close-up, in color, of a bare-chested young man (named Spring) tapping his arm in preparation for shooting up, under which the narration finishes its first sentence (“…prowl thro’ the dark”). Quick cut back to the b&w Jarman, yawning, as the narration slams on the brakes, with “Fuck it” (for some, the profanity will be less shocking in its own right than as a negation of the pseudo-T.S. Eliot imagery of the first “memories” line). The sexual nature of the slang also connects with the homoerotic image of the muscular young man, who was Jarman’s companion, and perhaps lover, during this production (one hopes that Spring is merely acting). The narrator’s next words can also be read as a suitably harsh take on the young man’s self-destructive habits: “scatter like rats.”
After a few more words of Eliot-like narration, Jarman reaches for his antique ink pot. As he dips his pen, in looming close-up, we hear “…A goblin parts the curtains with a slant-eyed chuckle. [Sound Cue: a playful electronic keyboard arpeggio, mimicking the words] Panic. I blink as he vanishes into the shadows,…” There is an implicit connection between Jarman dipping his syringe-like pen, which we see, and Spring injecting himself, which we do not see. The connection is disturbing but resonant, like so much in this film: Spring shoots up dope while Jarman (cinematically) shoots a film, with both acts producing hallucinatory visions – although Jarman’s are of an infinitely more revealing, and ultimately healing, variety.
We now have our first glimpse of Caravaggio’s painting, shown in a fragmentary burst by a swirling camera, the nude ‘angelic’ form tumbling head over foot, and tinted a garish red; the sound under is the piercing shriek of a police siren, as the narrator finishes the sentence (“…hint of prophetic cats-eyes.”). We now cut back to a medium shot of Jarman, interspersed with a few frames of Spring coughing, then go to an extreme slanted close-up of Jarman writing with calligraphic elegance (although the text does not match the narration, as you might expect). There is a wonderful, sensuous interplay of bright highlights reflecting off both the pen and the wet black ink on the white paper: again, the motif of light and darkness.
Since this essay is only a brief introduction to Jarman’s immeasurably rich film, let me say: enough shot-by-shot interpretation! I hope I’ve shown that, even in these first few seconds, rather than being an “incoherent mess,” as its detractors have sneered, this film is filled not only with carefully-orchestrated motifs but with brilliant connections (junkie’s needle / artist’s pen; myriad light and dark images in just the first few shots, with hundreds of additional variations throughout the film). Now, let’s begin looking at some of the larger themes introduced in these first couple of minutes.
The opening affords an intriguing connection between Jarman and his earlier films, as well as with other pictures. Not all of what Jarman has written in his mysterious notebook is verbal: note the strange, perhaps even alchemical, symbols which fill various pages. They recall such mystical searchers in earlier Jarman films as Prospero, so memorably brought to life in Jarman’s brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, as well as the sixteenth century alchemist John Dee, who in Jubilee who joins Queen Elizabeth on a trip 400 years into the future, to find England a post-apocalyptic waste land (many people regard this film as a sort of sequel to Jubilee, although Jarman himself greatly prefers The Last of England). Jarman may have been shooting his actual work desk, but it brings to mind the study/laboratory of the title character in gay filmmaker F.W. Murnau’s sublime Faust (1926).
The way Jarman shoots close-ups of his own face, with that distinctive crescent of light, recalls the memorable emergence, from the shadows, of the oracular Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando) in Apocalypse Now (1979). The connection is reenforced by Jarman’s narrator, a couple of minutes later, quoting Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men,” which is read (at length) during a key moment in Coppola’s film. Jarman brings back the image of the crescent – note its dual nature: light and dark – in various forms throughout his film, most notably on the headdress of the transgendered god-like character who dances at the mid-point (prefiguring Tilda’s climactic dance). This ‘crescent motif,’ connected to the main light/dark dichotomy, is yet one more way in which Jarman unifies his film through (subtly) integrated forms.
After Jarman cuts from shots of himself writing, he brings in composer Simon Fisher-Turner’s plaintive cello melody over one of the film’s most shocking images: Spring, still shirtless, in a garbage-strewn lot kicking and whipping Caravaggio’s “Amor Vincit Omnia.” (Painted around 1601, it is also known as “Amor [Love] Victorious, ” although Jarman in his book refers to it as “Profane Love” – and it is roughly life-size: 113cm x 156cm / 44.5″ x 61.4″.) As the scene moves outdoors, the narrator echoes the shift: “Outside in the leaden hail….” A few lines later we conclude this opening narration – as well as the music – when we reach the title phrase: “…On every green hill mourners stand, and weep for The Last Of England.
Let’s take a moment to look at the film’s suggestive title, or rather titles: Jarman discusses several in his book. The most revealing discarded effort, which Jarman almost used (until Tilda Swinton talked him out of it during post-production), was “The Dead Sea.” There is a clear parallelism with Eliot’s title (“Waste Land,” “Land Sea”), which must have struck Jarman (for all of his silence on the topic in his book). There is another striking association which he does elaborate on: its connection to Victorian artist Holman Hunt’s haunting “The Scape-Goat” (1854–1858).
That painting depicts the forlorn title creature – as Jarman noted, “tethered by the Dead Sea” – against an apocalyptic landscape which shares much with this film, from the luridly burning sky to the barren earth to the singularly dead body of water (from which a claw-like branch emerges, to unnerving effect, in the center of the left side). On a further level, which Jarman does not write about, there is the significance of both the scapegoat itself and this particular location. In his journal, Hunt described the setting – the shore of the Dead Sea at Osdoom, with the mountains of Edom in the background – as “a scene of beautifully arranged horrible wilderness” (shades of The Last of England). Hunt saw this place as a “horrible figure of sin” since, in his time, the Dead Sea was believed to be the original location of the city of Sodom (whose obliteration today’s hellfire ministers associate with “homosexuality,” but which Jesus attributed to its inhabitants’ lack of hospitality). On the painting’s frame, Hunt included the illustrative Bible quotation – “And the Goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a Land not inhabited.” (Leviticus XVI, 22) – which bears a distinct similarity to this flm’s final scene, with the gay heretic (wearing the conical ‘heretic’s cap’ of the Inquisition) leading a boatload of outcasts to an uncertain future. Throughout the film, Jarman frequently shows LGBTQ people as the scapegoats – in the hellish waste land of his film, as in the actual 1980s England – for an immoral, violent, and hypocritical society.
Jarman’s final title reflects not only the ‘end times’ nature of his film, but a well-known Pre-Raphaelite painting of the same title by Ford Madox Brown (the grandfather of novelist Ford Madox Ford). The circular “The Last of England” (1855) portrays of a family of stricken immigrants, visually modeled on Brown and his wife, as they sail away from England forever: the image, of course, brings to mind the final moments of this film (on an autobiographical note, Jarman notes that his ancestors made a similar voyage out). The dynamism of Brown’s painting is comparable to Jarman’s, as is its unnerving emphasis on details that are both banal and grotesque and banal: note the bizarre ropes of cabbages in the foreground, the ‘goblin-like’ little men in the upper left, the shell-shocked girl in the center left, and the tiny baby’s hand sticking out of the mother’s cloak, which is just one of instance of the singularly unnerving ‘hands motif’ throughout this painting (which has its parallel in Jarman’s film). Like some other Pre-Raphaelite artists, Brown wrote a sonnet to amplify his painting: he notes how the couple is forced to listen to “Low ribaldry from sots, and share tough cheer / With rudely-nurtur’d men, … [nevertheless] “She grips his listless hand and clasps her child, / Through rainbow tears she sees a sunnier gleam, / She cannot see a void where he will be.” Brown’s poetic gloss on his hypnotic painting allows us to contemplate even more connections, of imagery and theme with Jarman’s film.
The Second Minute
Let’s continue our close look at the opening sequence by focusing on its second minute.
It continues with Spring sexually assaulting Caravaggio’s painting, as we hear his breathy erotic sighs as he rolls around on “Amor” in counterpoint to a a series of electronic twangs. We then cut back to Jarman at his desk; reverberant echoes seem to fill his space (making this a play on the sonic and spatial meanings of ‘volume’). Visually, we match cut from an extreme close-up of Jarman striking a match to light a cigarette, to a blinding desk lamp, to an igniting flare in a new, maroon-tinted sequence in a dark, foreboding warehouse. Musically, the flare’s hiss segues into a lyrical composition performed by a small string ensemble. With this first of dozens of flare images which significantly punctuate the entire film (ending only in the final shot), we have come to the end of this two and a half minute sequence… but, of course, just the beginning of the film. It will come as no surprise that just a few moments into this new sequence, the man with the flare walks past a large pool of still black water: another instance of the pervasive motif of light/dark – fire/water.
As to the flares, on one level they bring to mind the fountainhead of gay avant-garde filmmaking – “Fireworks” (1947), the first film of then 17-year-old Kenneth Anger (he summarises it as “A dissatisfied dreamer awakes, goes out in the night seeking ‘a light’ and is drawn through the needle’s eye. A dream of a dream…”) – as well as their metaphorical meaning, as something which explodes into life, burns brilliantly, and then soon dies out; the man bearing the flare (played by Spencer Leigh) later appears as the Heretic (his conical hat was used by the Inquisition to mark those condemned to burn at the stake for “heresy”), who manages not only to survive his travails throughout the film, but ultimately, in the final scene, to lead the small band out into the water, as they embark for parts unknown.
Let’s look at the galvanizing scene of Spring turning Renaissance art into the most unlikely of ‘party dolls.’ This is, pun intended, the climax of the memorable opening sequence – and one of the film’s pivotal moments. Besides shock value, it works on many levels, as Jarman draws together autobiographical, aesthetic, political, and even spiritual elements.
On one level, Jarman is here, as elsewhere in the film, putting himself in the great Surrealist film tradition, inaugurated by filmmaker Luis Buñuel and bisexual artist Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (1928). Although their infamous ‘eyeball-and-razor’ shot remains unsurpassed, Jarman has a go at it in a horrific yet twistedly comical scene which occurs later in this film, as we watch a man literally eating glass. Like so much of the imagery in this film, it is at once cringe-inducing, banal (at least to the eater, who miraculously doesn’t suffer any ill effects from his ‘snack’), and disturbingly beautiful, with those shards of glass sparkling on the man’s lips. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of comparably surreal moments throughout the film – not least the Spring/Caravaggio scene.
Jarman uses that particular painting not just as a plug for his most recent film, 1986’s Caravaggio, but for what it represents. For some viewers, it’s just a hot young naked guy with wings, striking a comely pose. But if we look closely, we can see that there are – as in The Last of England – many more layers: ironic, apocalyptic, not to mention richly ambiguous. Amor (‘Love’) is, symbolically, on top of the world, as he rests insouciantly above objects which represent human endeavor: music (violin, lute, musical score), art (drawing implements), science (compass), government (sceptre, crown), war (armor, arrows), as well as ‘profane love’ (the white sheet, also many of the objects can be read erotically, such as the arrows – and then there’s Amor’s come-hither smile). Some art historians interpret the painting in strictly mythological terms (lining up each of the objects with one or the other of Amor’s diverse parents: Mars, god of war, and Venus, goddess of love), but a more general reading allows us to see some intriguing connections with this film.
Ironically, there is far more life in Carvaggio’s painted cupid than in the actor Spring. Caravaggio’s Eros, even with his super-human wings, bursts with relaxed energy and self-confidence (of course, one expects no less from a god). He seems on the verge of raising his left knee and stepping out of the frame to, at a minimum, greet us. His grin can be read as playful and/or mocking, and he seems a much more complex figure than a mere depiction of eros triumphant over earthly arts, science, and politics, which lie scattered at his feet.
By contrast, Spring comes across as a homoerotic riff on Kubrick’s bone-wielding apes in the prologue to 2001 or his violence-besotted teenage thugs (“droogs”) in A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick connects those two groups as surely as Jarman alludes to Kubrick). Although some viewers will have a Pavlovian response to a lean-bodied shirtless youth (erotic, condemnatory – or, worse, both), Jarman’s depiction of Spring is far from simple. The opening two minutes present several quick juxtapositions of the phlegmatic Jarman, in black and white, and Spring, first in color (with a reddish cast) and then, in this stomping scene, in a maroon monochrome. Besides the tinting, Jarman alienates us from Spring, and de-eroticizes him, by using fragmentary compositions, and (frequently) speeded-up shots which go by at a grotesquely dizzying pace. As throughout the film, Jarman’s inspired stylistic techniques enrich the scene’s meaning, while distancing us from – and hence giving us some freedom to contemplate – the content.
There is also an evocative sexual and political component, centering on a punning relationship between the literal object, of the painting of Eros, and the objectification of Spring’s body. Despite the actor’s wearing jeans, and being wingless, he is depicted as being analogous to the painting’s subject. Both have slightly fleshy young male bodies, and both exhibit – exhibitionistically – their destructive behaviors: Eros’s being apocalyptic, Spring’s just grossly inappropriate (more on this theme in a moment). The line between art appreciation and human eroticism has been blurred to the point of absurdity, or Absurdity. There is another resonant connection between these two (objectified) ‘works of male art,’ as Jarman picks up the drafting implement (the square) in Caravaggio and recreates its shape onscreen in the form of a broken picture frame. On a larger level, of which this picture contains an incalculable number, those L-shaped objects playfully suggest what happens when the frame is shattered: Eros can escape, not to mention the wanton forces which it holds in check. Forgive me for summarizing this as, Eros sprung is Spring – but again, Jarman has de-eroticized his performer (in a sense, re-framed and re-controlled him) through his distancing stylistic techniques, as well as through his punning narration at the moment of Spring’s getting it on with his Renaissance double.
The narrator here comments: “Spring lapped the fields in arsenic green…” (‘arsenic green’ is a hoary staple of mystery stories: mix arsenic in paint, and as it dries it flakes off and poisons the room’s occupant). Of course, the most ‘distancing’ thing in this scene is Spring’s sensely violent action. “Amor Vincit Omnia” is a masterpiece; to destroy it is unconscionable. (The full-size reproduction is by Christopher Hobbs, Jarman’s art director and frequent collaborator.) But to kick the painting, whip it, and then sexually assault it is profoundly shocking: why is Jarman doing this to us, right at the beginning of his film?
Looking further at the Spring/Caravaggio scene, since Jarman and Spring were involved off-camera, there is also a personal level whose full ramifications we can never know. It’s important to remember that similarities between on-screen and off-screen actions may stop when the camera does; yet this is the only film Spring is credited with, and no amount of Internet searching brings up any substantive information about his later life. Intriguingly, Jarman did leave comments on this scene, and Spring. The trampling of Caravaggio’s painting is, he noted: “an embrace to death, kicking blindly, destroying without purpose is endemic to our culture, sanctified progress. Denying value to anything that can’t be consumed…. Caravaggio… [is] showing this destruction. Creating this wicked angel, a grin all over his face; he’s a catalyst, like Terence Stamp in Pasolini’s Theorem who disrupts an ordered world. Spring, who mirrors this cupid, rejected the ivory tower of my films, he loved adverts and fast food, Campbells soup, Dallas, James Dean posing around in that endlessly dull film Giant. Turning MTV on and off, he created panic, a flicker film…. [In a later passage, Jarman wrote:] Spring is in a cul-de-sac, adrift, his feet are not on the ground, he’s a destructive force. Whenever you see him he is hell-bent on destroying…. The destruction of the painting was important, Spring reproduces its assault. Caravaggio was unleashing animal passions, that cupid is destructive; Spring is a sly cupid destroying Caravaggio in his turn: destruction is destroyed….”
This is an interesting aesthetic ‘double negative,’ with the new violence transforming what Jarman sees as Caravaggio’s original destructive force. Yet the specifics of the scene allow us to read even more into it. For instance, in terms of the “immorality,” well, the sad burned-out ‘lifestyle’ of this character is hardly an inducement for any sane person to follow suit. (It should be noted that Jarman had earlier made two landmark affirmative gay films: Sebastiane and The Angelic Conversation; with this film, he wanted to broaden, and darken, his depiction of characters who shared his sexual orientation. UPDATE! And I’m happy to report that life need not follow art: I received a friendly message, on June 11, 2007, from Mark Adley – he used his screen name of Spring in the film – who mentions, among other things, that he’s doing very well. But now, back to the character created by Jarman and brought to life by Mark…)
Spring ends, unsurprisingly, in a heap – spent, paralyzed (ironically, Jarman now cuts to a decidedly unexcited shot of himself, sleepily rubbing his eyes.). The climax of Spring’s scene introduces a much larger motif which runs throughout the film: this apocalyptic world is not only collapsing, it is also physically, emotionally, and spiritually collapsed. A key image, which we see again and again, are the hordes of people crouched by the riverside, waiting for… who knows what. This England is overrun with terrorists and commandos, and the entire film is punctuated with periodic bursts of gunfire and explosions, yet the overall feeling is one of stasis, lifelessness: the huddled masses seem far more representative than the guerillas. Violence breeds not only destruction but entropy. All of this is prefigured here at the beginning, in the Spring/Carvaggio scene, which also shows the connection between violence and eroticism… and art. (In his book, Jarman acknowledges the influence of another great, and importantly disturbing, gay filmmaker/author/artist, Pier Paolo Pasolini, who earlier explored those themes.)
One of the most memorable scenes in The Last of England comes near the structural center, and represents a thematic turning point: a handsome young man and a black-masked fascist commando make love on top of a huge Union Jack (the UK’s national flag). Although the dozen booze bottles surrounding them makes us question the purity of their love, this is clearly a step up the evolutionary ladder from ‘pictoriality’ (cf. ‘bestiality’) in the Spring scene. Sexuality is here, at last in this film, a means to connection. It is the first time that these two ‘opposite’ forces have come together without bloodshed; and on one level, it moves the film, however slightly, in a progressive direction. As such, this scene’s structural placement can be seen as the dimmest of hopeful beacons – but hopeful nonetheless. The nostalgic scenes of childhood, with Jarman’s mother the sole ‘good and happy’ figure in the entire film, climax with the ominous World War II footage shot by Jarman’s father. But the horrific ‘present day’ scenes of raging warfare, terrorist attacks, ecological disaster (the sky in flames takes global warming to a whole new level), which we have been subjected to – and mesmerized by (wanton destruction has rarely been so aesthetic since Goya’s The Disasters of War two centuries ago) – for the entire first half of the film, have now at last been modified, however slightly. As the Union Jack scene also reveals, Jarman’s vision of human nature is anything but simplistically ‘good guy’ vs. ‘bad guy.’ Jarman knows that such dehumanizing stereotypes are a precondition for oppression and war – the waste (Eng)land of this film.
Now that I have marked out two pivotal moments, I leave it to you, if you like, to trace the evolution of these opposing-yet-intertwined forces throughout this riveting, densely-layered film – but recall that we have seen this interplay of dark and light from the very first shot of this film, as analyzed above. Now, let’s leap to the final sequence.
The Final Sequence
Jarman consciously structured his film with the Spring/Caravaggio scene at the beginning and Tilda Swinton’s shattering dance at the end; further, I believe the Union Jack scene is a thematic mid-point, which helps us get from the wanton destructiveness of Spring to the liberating energy of Tilda.
Before looking at Tilda’s dance and the picture’s next, and final, scene, let me quickly mention the context. Jarman has shown us Tilda’s grotesque wedding in a dilapidated warehouse, which begins with troll-like bearded men putting on wigs and bridesmaids gowns to accompany the attractive bride and groom. The baby is already present in its carriage, almost suffocated in newspapers, instead of snuggled in a blanket. The paper is the tabloid The Sun, and the headline – which refers to the 1982 Falklands War – shouts: “GOD BE WITH YOU… WAR WITH THE ARGIES [Argentinians] ONLY HOURS AWAY…” Aptly, instead of a wedding march we hear an electronic version of the medieval hymn, Dies Irae (‘day of wrath’). This scene may have been in Jarman’s mind when he responded to an interviewer’s question about whether he reads the Bible. Jarman said, “Yes, frequently” – but he specified only two books: the Song of Solomon (this scene would be his take on that poetic ‘bride and bridgegroom’ dialogue) and that most wanton of apocalyptic writings, Revelation. In a way, this entire film is Jarman’s personal recasting of Revelation (near the mid-point he even has an obese version of the Whore of “Babylon turn[ing a] globe: she’s the dynamo of the city, the city is on fire, her hands grasp the wold, she’s spinning it off its axis. Where in all of this is LOVE?”), even as he further connects himself to the rich tradition of gay experimental filmmaking, here to Kenneth Anger‘s landmark Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) which features its own creepily campy Whore of Babylon, and a bevy of mythic figures from Egyptian, Classical, Christian, Hindu traditions (above we noted Jarman’s use of Anger’s “Fireworks,” but there are many more connections between Anger and Jarman than those two scenes).
Jarman remarked that the couple’s “wedding is a marriage of the dead, the child born of the marriage is suicide,” but his film his more complex than that: the couple is presented affirmatively (all the more so by surrounding by the Goyaesque grotesques), and the profundity of the bride’s feelings for her husband, who will be executed by the commandos (we saw this in agonizingly protracted real-time earlier in this film; it’s now recapitulated in just a few frames), is what pushes her, and the film, to its overwhelming climax. By the edge of a deserted river, standing by a blazing pyre with the sun behind her, Tilda begins cutting apart her wedding gown with a knife. The shards of her dress paralleling the flames behind her, she begins to dance.
Jarman compares her to Jung’s feminine archetype, the Anima – “numinous, unconditional, dangerous, taboo, magical.” The only other key female figure in this film is Jarman’s mother, but she is presented passively, through a sweet nostalgic haze. How different is Tilda, whom Jarman says is “blown by a whirlwind of destruction, [becoming] a figure of strength…. the divinity who wipes out memory, all the elemental forces are unleashed in Tilda’s dance.” As she dances, for a moment, we see superimposed Jarman writing in his journal, as in the opening scene.
Tilda emerges as a latter-day Shiva, a god in whom destruction and creation are one, even as the scene reminds us of the film’s central dance by the crescent-wearing sexually ambiguous god/dess figure. Unlike here, Jarman deconstructs that dance, which seems to bring chaos and horror, not only through the nasty grotesquerie of the character but by shooting him/her with music video techniques pushed to the breaking point: extreme fragmentary shots, color colliding with black and white, sped-up motion, vertiginous repeated shots. With this threadbare divinity repeatedly associated with flames, the scene could be read as an illustration of Buddha’s classic Fire Sermon, also an important component of “The Waste Land.” Buddha urges his followers to transcend earthly “Burning with the fire of craving, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion…,” and instead strive for true inner peace. It is only after we have gone through the remaining half of this film’s tormenting fires that we begin to approach that state, through Tilda’s radically liberating dance.
She does what nothing else has been able to do – not the bombs or the murders or the burning sky – she bursts the film open, breaks the paralysis, and so opens at least the possibility of a more hopeful future. Until this point, Jarman’s narrator has been on the money: “Tomorrow’s been cancelled owing to lack of interest” – but through her immeasurable grief Tilda, in opposition to Spring at the beginning, has unleashed transformative energy.
This dance is the film’s culmination: volcanic emotion, poetic intensity, spiritual rebirth, all coupled with razor-sharp political insight – realized through every element of film: performance, image, sound, movement, and sheer unbridled vision. At this level, it could be said that Jarman’s total artistry is intrinsically affirmative.
After Tilda’s climactic dance, we move quickly through three images: a red-tinted shot of the countryside, followed by a shimmering, profoundly ambiguous image of something glimmering through (probably trees). It’s impossible to tell whether this is water or, with the shimmering red hue, fire: and that may be the point. Water and fire – the images which began the film and which have run through it in hundreds of variations – have now achieved the seemingly impossibly: they have joined together. We next cut to the, at long long last, end of paralysis: a small boat is venturing out onto the pitch black waters. At its center stands the Heretic: having survived all of the attacks and torture, he now holds aloft his flare (like some revisionist Statue of Liberty), while the other robed figures push further out. Are they rowing to their deaths, guided by a flare – which miraculously continues to burn brilliantly… or are they beginning a journey to some brave new world, with the dawn moments away – for them as perhaps it is for Jarman, who started his film 88 minutes ago when the clock struck 4 AM.
That final scene has also revealed that The Last of England is richly, brazenly, phantasmagorically open – not, as its detractors allege, programmatic, a mere work of ‘gay identity politics.’ It is filled not with ‘incoherence’ but, as we have seen, a profound array of connections, some obvious (water and fire) and many others subtle, as in the provocative web it weaves between art, sexuality, politics, mythic journeys, and spiritual rebirth. Jarman could say, with Eliot, that “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” – and, we can add, against England’s, and all of civilization’s, ruins too.
This film is an extraordinary work of art which illuminates much through its interconnected parts: its critical vision – political, aesthetic and always personal; the raw beauty and power of the images, which intoxicate even as they sometimes horrify but ultimately strip away illusion; its sheer unstoppable momentum (more than once I began re-viewing a scene, and wound up watching the entire film again). While drawing on earlier works from all media, painting to poetry to music videos, it creates new possibilities of cinematic language (as does its finest ‘offspring,’ including Jonathan Caouette 2004 filmic memoir, Tarnation). Jarman’s film is incomparably rich in ideas and connections, both internal (meaningful structural complexity) and external (as it simultaneously quotes from and provides an implicit new perspective on works as disparate as ancient myths, “The Waste Land,” and “Howl”). The film is both particular, with ’80s England laid bare through a politicized yet poetic gay perspective, and universal, with its journey of survival, discovery, and healing – like the quest for the Holy Grail legend, whether in its medieval legendary form or Eliot’s reimagining or, at its most primal and universal level, as a manifestation of our own individual and collective quests for a wholly integrated life.
The Last of England ends with a sea journey beginning (like the Brown painting which provided the film’s title), which may at last take us beyond the banal horrors of the wasteland, where “Tomorrow’s been cancelled owing to lack of interest.”
The film fades out with a new openness, as if it is exhorting us to be aware, be strong, and push off bravely into the dark sea, even if we only have a flare for illumination. That is the essence of Jarman’s defiant humanity.
- Written and Directed by Jarman
- Produced by Don Boyd and James Mackay
- Associates Producers: Yvonne Little and Mayo Thompson
- Cinematography by Jarman, Richard Heslop, Christopher Hughes, and Cerith Wyn Evans
- Production Design by Christopher Hobbs
- Costume Design by Sandy Powell
- Sound Design by Simon Fisher-Turner
- Sound Department: Chris Gurney, Peter Maxwell, and Steve Hancock
- Edited by Peter Cartwright, Angus Cook, John Maybury, and Sally Yeadon
- Original Music by Simon Fisher-Turner
- Additional Music (as listed in the closing credits): Barry Adamson (“Refugee Theme”), Andy Gill (“Terrorists”), Mayo Thompson & Albert Oehlen (“Disco Death”); Marianne Faithfull (“The Skye Boat Song”), Elgar “Pomp & Circumstance”; Diamanda Galás (“La Treizieme Revient” (the thirteenth returns) & “Exeloyme” (deliver me).
- Music Not Listed: One important musical cue, not listed on either the closing credits or soundtrack album (below), occurs during the scene of the young man and masked soldier going at it on the Union Jack – the scoring (musical) is one of J.S. Bach’s unaccompanied violin sonatas.
- Spring (Mark Adley)
- Gay Gaynor
- Matthew Hawkins
- Spencer Leigh
- Gerrard McArthur
- Jonathan Phillips
- Tilda Swinton
- Nigel Terry (voice-over narration)
Music plays an integral part in The Last of England, and all of Jarman’s films. Here is the soundtrack listing, which offers more detail than that provided in the closing credits (given above verbatim), including titles for individual musical cues. Simon Fisher-Turner used his name ‘Simon Turner’ on this film. The album does not follow the film chronologically. It is released by Mute Records (UK), CD IONIC 1 (1987).
1. Simon Turner “Tonala” (2:22)
2. Simon Turner “Autumn Leaf” (3:27)
3. Simon Turner “Sketches of Luxembourg” (1:24)
4. Simon Turner “The Last of England” (2:24)
5. Simon Turner “Fina” (1:41)
6. Simon Turner “Persistence of Memory” (3:02)
7. Simon Turner “The Bridge” (2:49)
8. Simon Turner “Hymn for Thatcher” (7:04)
9. Mayo Thompson/Albert Oehlen/Tilda Swinton “Disco Death” (3:25)
10. Brian Gulland “Springback” (1:04)
11. Barry Adamson “Refugee Theme (15 Rounds)” (4:41)
12. Andy Gill “In the Free World” (4:47)
13. Simon Turner “Intro” (00:20)
14. Diamanda Galas “The Thirteen Returns” (5:03)
15. Diamanda Galas “Deliver Me” (7:20)
16. Simon Turner “The Day After Tomorrow” (2:16)
17. Simon Turner “Imprisoned Memories” (1:44)
18. Simon Turner “Jets”/”The Dead Sea” (5:54)
19. Mayo Thompson/El Tito/Simon Turner “Broadway Boy” (1:26)
20. John Dent/Simon Turner “The National Grid” (1:23)
There are currently several Jarman video releases, to own (on DVD and Blu-ray), rent, stream, or borrow from your library, as well as Jarman books. NOTE: If you use my Amazon Affiliate Jarman link for a purchase, I may receive a commission that helps support this site, at no additional cost to you. Regardless, I stand by my opinions.
Original Video Release (Used for This Review)
Image Entertainment’s DVD offers good image and sound quality, especially considering that it was originally shot in 8mm then blown up to 35mm for theatrical release. The home movies of Jarman’s family, which are used extensively, were 40 years old at the time he made this film. This film was never pristine; and its graininess and murkiness are as much a reflection of Jarman’s vision as of budgetary constraints.
- Presented in its 1.78:1 theatrical aspect ratio
- Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround
- $19.99 suggested retail
Reviewed February 8, 2006 / Revised October 19, 2020