September 9, 1991 (Venice Film Festival) — 90 minutes, color, 35mm, aspect ratio 1.85:1 — Drama
Jarman’s 7th feature, a powerful, brilliantly imaginative adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s play about the doomed 14th century English king and his male lover.
Derek Jarman’s fiery Edward II (1991) is erotic, political, visually arresting, experimental in the most provocative sense, and unforgettable. Few films of recent years offer so many incisive ideas to ponder or indelible images to savor. Yet with all of its intellectual and artistic sweep, it also connects on a deep emotional level. Some scenes literally made me weep, from the sheer power of Jarman’s vision – filmed exactly 400 years after the premiere of its classic source, Christopher Marlowe‘s verse drama Edward the Second [free onlne] – and his gifted cast’s ability to bring these characters to full, throbbing life. There is nothing else quite like the heartrending scene of the king forced to send the man he loves into exile, with the Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox standing behind them anachronistically singing Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” It sounds ridiculous, but Jarman not only makes it all work, he creates one of the most emotionally overpowering scenes I know. Re-seeing this film on DVD, it now seems not only this extraordinary filmmaker/ artist/ poet/ author’s single greatest work but one of the best films of the 1990s. It is also a defining work of New Queer Cinema, opening within a few months of perhaps the two other most important pictures of this evolving genre: Todd Haynes’s Poison and Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho. Edward II is in the top 10 of 50 Outstanding LGBTQ Films and one of 50 Great Films by LGBTQ Directors. This is the first new Jarman DVD release in two years; Image Entertainment is to be thanked for presenting this essential film in a disc with pristine image quality and rich sound.
In Edward II, the new king of England (title role played by Steven Waddington, of The Last of the Mohicans, Carrington), finds his throne in peril when he brings his lover Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan, The Pianist) back from exile. Enraged, the Queen (Tilda Swinton, Orlando, The Deep End, many Jarman films) and her lover Mortimer (Nigel Terry, 1968’s The Lion in Winter, Jarman’s Caravaggio) scheme to take down the king at all costs and dominate England.
Before looking at Jarman’s revelatory adaptation of Marlowe’s play, let’s skip back a few centuries and meet the inimitable Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (1564–1593) – baddest Bad Boy of the English Renaissance, whose undergraduate motto was, albeit in Latin): “Quod me nutrit me destruit” – “What nourishes me, destroys me.” (Jarman played a not dissimilar role four centuries later; you are welcome to read my brief introduction to his life and works.)
With four of his just six plays, Marlowe made unprecedented contributions to theatre, defining (for Shakespeare and every playwright since) the historical epic: Tamburlaine the Great, the complex revenge melodrama: The Jew of Malta, the philosophical ‘sell your soul to the Devil’ fantasy: Dr. Faustus (which fixed this key myth for later centuries), and, perhaps most importantly of all, the psychological drama (historical or otherwise): Edward II. Looking at his slim but incomparable volume of poetry and dramas, Marlowe’s tragic death at the age of 29 is perhaps the single greatest loss in all of English literature;only the poet John Keats, who died at 26, comes immediately to mind as ‘runner up’. It should also be mentioned that for all of his historic and literary importance, Marlowe is also, in a word, fun – energetic, inflammatory, as pricklingly alive today as four centuries ago.
His life was no less colorful than his stagecraft: think of a combination of Mick Jagger, Angels in America’s playwright Tony Kushner, and – considering that Marlowe was also quite the successful spy – James Bond. Marlowe’s death remains a legendary mystery. Was he killed in a mere tavern brawl, or was it political assassination? Or the work of a jealous lesser writer? – in 1592 kid “Kit” was absolutely the reigning titan of the English theatre, and he wasn’t afraid to rub that fact in anyone’s nose (this was centuries before Dale Carnegie’s self-help books). Or could it have been one of his ex’s? Or did his gleeful taunting of ‘social conservatives’ seal his fate? “I count religion but a childish toy,” he wrote in the Prologue to The Jew of Malta, “And hold there is no sin but ignorance.”
And his notorious remark that “St. John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ” could still today incite a riot, or worse, in many places. Marlowe was the most defiantly gay artist of his time, whether in “blasphemous” remarks like that, or in off-the-cuff quips (like “all they that love not boys and tobacco are fools”), or in a towering masterpiece like Edward II. Its combination of unprecedented poetic flexibility, passion and radical compassion made it not only a seminal English tragedy but the single greatest gay-themed text between the ancient Greco-Roman world and the modern era: arguably Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, written 250 years later, is the next most important work. (I include Marlowe’s play on my list of 10 essential works of GLBT Literature.) As we look at Jarman’s adaptation, I’ll talk more about the importance, and raw power, of Marlowe’s play, and how Jarman re-embodies it in a film perhaps no less radical than the original play was in its day.
Jarman’s stripped-down hermetic set (built at Bray Studios) is one of the film’s simplest but most resonant features. (Jarman was a brilliant production designer, as on Ken Russell’s The Devils, before turning director.) The oppressive stone walls, so high that they always extend beyond the top of the frame, the dirt floors, and the endless maze of corridors all reflect the suffocating nature of this world. Jarman accentuates the effect with narrow, razor-sharp shafts of light. Paradoxically, it is a space both flat, with its narrow chambers, yet limitless. We follow Edward and the others round and round in this minimalist limbo with no exit (shades of Existentialism), although we do come upon the occasional slaughterhouse (shades of Francis Bacon’s paintings, or Dante’s Inferno: Jarman even introduces an Italian actor who recites, at a command performance for Edward and Gaveston, the opening of Dante’s epic poem – which in fact had been published at the time of the historical Edward II’s reign). The setting stands, or rather towers, in contrast to the realistic locales of such earlier Jarman films as Sebastiane (shot on location) and even The Tempest (filmed in an actual crumbling mansion by the sea, which brilliantly doubled for Shakespeare’s enchanted island), while it recalls his design for Caravaggio. Paradoxically, the set is both claustrophobic, as befits the nature of the play, yet liberating to our imaginations, much as a theatre set would be.
In fact, Jarman’s set, for all its experimental associations, is – on a literal level – not dissimilar to the Elizabethan stages for which Marlowe wrote. Those “boards” were completely bare, the antithesis of today’s Broadway or West End extravaganzas overflowing with props. Elizabethan audiences had to rely on performance, costumes, and most importantly the soaring lines of their great dramatist/poets to imagine fabulous, and sometimes horrifying, realms. That very “limitation,” of worlds created entirely through words, will keep those plays alive, on stages both actual and ‘between our ears,’ forever.
Another way in which Jarman’s ‘avant-garde’ design is surprisingly like Elizabethan theatre conventions involves anachronism. Perhaps the most famous anachronism of all time (pun intended) is the clock which strikes in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: uh, they wouldn’t be invented for well over a thousand more years. It was typical in Marlowe’s day for, more or less, contemporary costumes to be worn, regardless of a play’s historical period: hence, ancient Greek soldiers who dress like knights. So when Jarman dresses the power-mad Queen Isabella and the lords of England in the glamorous but, literally and metaphorically, tight-fitting high fashions of the 1950s, it’s an approach not dissimilar to that of the Elizabethan stage. Of course, Jarman is doing it to make a trenchant political point. Most obviously he is saying that the corrupting nature of power is no different in our modern world than it was in Marlowe’s time (the Order of Banishment he’s forced to sign regarding Gaveston is dated in “this year of Our Lord 1991”); and of course Marlowe was making exactly the same point about the political intrigues of his own day (he knew royal machinations intimately, from his access to Queen Elizabeth’s court and from his work as a spy) compared to that of the ‘distant past’ of Edward’s time three centuries earlier – or the ancient world, for that matter (an education in the Bible and Greek and Roman Classics was required in Marlowe’s day).
For the film, the most important aspect of the setting is psychological, and by extension structural. Jarman’s set reflects Edward’s subjective point of view, which permeates almost – but not quite – every aspect of this film. To Edward, all the world is not so much a stage as it is a dank, suffocating prison, like the one in which he is now awaiting his murder. Jarman has added this frame story, of Edward in his cell, based on the final scenes of Marlowe’s play but carefully cut up and shuffled throughout the entire film. Seven or eight times, often after a point of extreme emotion, Jarman cuts back to Edward huddled in his cell. There he focuses on both the doomed king’s thoughts (which comprise virtually the entire action of the film, not to mention Marlowe’s play) – and his enigmatic, increasingly erotic relationship with his jailor, Lightborn (more thoughts on him, and them, later). I like this framing device more every time I see this film; and Jarman is very skillful in how he sets it up in the first moments.
To give an added texture, both emotional and thematic, Jarman occasionally and briefly incorporates another perspective, that of Edward’s young son (played by Jody Graber), who will eventually become King Edward III. This gifted young actor gives an astonishing performance, almost entirely through gesture and facial expression. His brief scenes have him peering around a corner, or happening upon enigmatic goings-on in the dark. It is unnerving, though strangely beguiling, to see the boy listen attentively to Mortimer and in his next scene sport a scaled-down version of his militaristic garb (shades of “Mini Me”); when he seems to be in his mother’s thrall, he comes to sport gigantic earrings and silver pumps, just like her (what must Mortimer think, with his at-least-public horror at gender variance). For me, the most unnverving moment in the film comes in the final moments, when Prince Edward ascends the throne and exacts poetic justice: his mother and Mortimer find out just how closely the boy has learned their lessons.
As with the sets, Jarman’s costumes also have a deeper significance. He chose the most literally confining wardrobe of recent decades (who needs corsets with asphyxiation-inducing high fashion?) to pun on the repressive nature of the court. It becomes almost a running joke that Queen Isabella sports a new, and metaphorically trenchant (although she wouldn’t get the point), haute couture creation in every scene (costume designer Sandy Powell certainly earned her awards for this film).
Even more extreme is the form-fitting fascist military garb which Jarman gives to Mortimer and his soldiers. As the film develops, we see the folly, and the horror, of the repressive and oppressive Mortimer trying to over-control his own, and everyone else’s, lives.
I don’t mean to spoil a “shocking scene,” but it should come as no surprise to find Jarman having Mortimer humiliated, trussed up by a bevy of his female prostitutes – and whipped by, unsurprisingly, a young ‘girly man’ in dominatrix drag. This is moments after he’s launched a blistering tirade against his degenerate gay king. The scene is one of Jarman’s more obvious agitprop-y interpretations of Marlowe – but you know what? I think he manages to pull even this over-the-top bit off through sheer filmmaking brilliance. Notice the head-on angle and cramped framing. If not from its “revisionism,” even this little moment produces a narrative jolt, because of Jarman’s mastery of image and his inspired direction of the actors, even the ladies of evening on the periphery, whips at the ready. He also knows exactly when to cut, whether a shot or one of Marlowe’s scenes.
That brings us to a deeper question about Jarman’s adaptation, namely, how does he handle Marlowe’s text, arguably one of the greatest works of both English theater and literature? The answer: radically but faithfully.
Jarman never shies away from cutting Marlowe, sometimes drastically but never less than incisively, if that is necessary to maintain his film’s propulsive but tense rhythm. Let’s take a look at one representative excerpt from the play. These are the very first lines of the play:
[Enter GAVESTON, reading on a letter that was brought him from the KING (Edward II)]
“My father is deceas’d! Come, Gaveston,
And share the kingdom with thy dearest friend,”
Ah! words that make me surfeit with delight!
What greater bliss can hap to Gaveston
Than live and be the favourite of a king!
Sweet prince, I come; these, these thy amorous lines
Might have enforc’d me to have swum from France,
And, like Leander, gasp’d upon the sand,
So thou would’st smile, and take me in thine arms.
Aside from a few archaic words and one mythical allusion, this speech is instantly comprehensible to us. And that allusion, to Leander, is maybe a playful bit of self-promotion (since Marlowe had written his most celebrated poem, “Hero and Leander,” about the mythical heterosexual couple, i.e., Buy my poem!) as well as the obligatory display of his Classical education, which his audience enjoyed.
A few lines later, Marlowe shows the power of his concise yet vivid language, as well as his understanding of socio-economic realities, when Gaveston snarls, “As for the multitude, that are but sparks, / Rak’d up in embers of their poverty — / Tanti!…” Here’s a good example of the very minimal “modernizing” which Jarman employs. Since few people, without footnotes, know that “Tanti!” was a then-popular curse (literally meaning, “So much for them!”), Jarman substitutes the much more contemporary “Fuck ’em!” to achieve the same effect – while still preserving the poetic meter, no lesss. And much later in the film, when Jarman actually shows us a “multitude,” the effect is disorienting in the richest possible sense. But what strikes me most about this passage, and almost all of Marlowe, is the sense of pulsing life, in its strong simple words and its impassioned rhythms. Marlowe’s plays move – verbally, dramatically, philosophically, and always emotionally.
Using his recurring frame story, Jarman begins with the enigmatic, and smolderingly sensual, jailor Lightborn reading the beginning of the letter (exactly as quoted above). Edward stirs, grabs the letter back, and continues, as his memory and imagination spin the scene of Gaveston in France receiving the note, as in the play – but there’s more. Jarman shows the erotic charge he brings to the film (eroticism is both Edward’s strength and the cause of his downfall) by establishing Gaveston in a tryst with Spencer (the dying Gaveston will later literally encourage Edward to take the loyal Spencer on as his new aide and lover). Not only that, inches away are two naked sailors getting it on. The text is Marlowe’s, but Jarman foregrounds the erotic subtext, even as he makes the characters, and plot, just a bit richer. The entire film is an astonishing adaptation, and if you are intrigued by such transformations, you may find a close comparison of the two works remarkably engrossing, even as it reveals the individual as well as the “collaborative” genius of Marlowe and Jarman.
One of Jarman’s unique contributions is, of course, the visual style he created here, which is both simple and direct. This film features perhaps his most formally pure, in terms of shape and line, yet deeply resonant compositions. There is such austere visual beauty, not only in the monolithic set and costumes, but in Jarman’s framing, and even how he (minimally) moves the camera. What makes this visual strategy so powerful, at times overwhelmingly so, is that – because of Marlowe’s evocative text and Jarman’s direction of his cast – the volcanic but repressed emotions (significantly, except in Edward, whose sexual freedom is vastly more terrifying to his fascist adversaries than any of his fiscal policies) are always in devastating contrast to the placid surfaces. You know that ‘something’s gotta give,’ and when it does, well, thereby hangs the tale.
Speaking of the cast, besides the male leads, whom I’ve already praised, I want to single out the extraordinary Tilda Swinton, who won the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival for this riveting, nuanced, twistedly sensuous performance. Today she is one of the most versatile and acclaimed actresses in the world. And for people who appreciate Jarman, she will also always be associated with his work. She was in five other of his features – Caravaggio, The Last of England, War Requiem, The Garden, and Wittgenstein – as well as his segment in the anthology film, Aria. On this DVD, you can see her moving tribute, “In the Spirit of Derek Jarman,” given at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2002 (which would have been Jarman’s 60th birthday). To give you a taste, here is one of her comments on Jarman: “You were the first person I met who could gossip about St. Thomas Aquinas and hold a steady camera at the same time, as you did at our first meeting.” Now, let’s go back to Edward II, to look at its narrative shape.
Jarman also rebalances the play’s structure, emphasizing the first act (which occupies over one-third of Jarman’s film) over the last four. What Jarman does, here as in his other sublime literary adaptation, of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is always always remain true not only to the emotion but to the emotional subtext. Hence, Jarman plays up – and at times camps up – the sexual repression which Marlowe was fully as aware of as Jarman, by using ‘repressive’ anachronistic fashions and by unflinchingly exploring the sexual debaucheries which the sanctimonious are heir to. Marlowe also makes it abundantly clear in his play that he understood, perhaps better than most of the legislators in, say, Washington, DC today, the diabolical nature of fascism. Marlowe’s play – as we see with stark clarity in Jarman’s interpretation – is all about the strapping together of the church, the military, and the ruling elite, to seal their own hegemony over the inferior masses, who are expected to believe what they’re told, do what they’re told, pay what they’re told, and even die when they’re told. And woe to anyone if s/he lives a different “lifestyle” or, even worse, stands up to them. There’s a red-hot poker with your name on, like Edward’s only mass-produced – and it’s unlikely you’ll get as drop-dead gorgeous a personal executioner as Lightborn.
It should be mentioned that some viewers consider this film to be genuinely shocking, for its extreme but realistic (though never gratuitous) use of violence. For me, it’s a brilliantly and deeply provocative film – not so much for the bloodletting (we all know it’s fake) but for the intensely and disturbingly strange beauty of Jarman’s images. It troubles me in the deepest way, because it constantly draws connections between areas which we’re supposed to consider discrete (if not discreet), like sex, law, power, religion, violence, and torture. Yes, Marlowe explores all of those themes in his play, but Jarman brings them viscerally to life through his spellbinding images and his cast’s performances.
Although theatrical productions (like Antonin Artaud’s minimalist Theatre of Cruelty in the ’30s or Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s The Living Theater of the ’60s), have employed an approach like Jarman’s here – stripped-down organic settings, anachronism to achieve metaphorical and political shock effects – few, if any, had succeeded on the screen at the level of Edward II. I have immense admiration for Rainer Werner Fassbinder, but his early TV film The Niklashausen Journey (1970) – comparable in theme and approach to Jarman’s film: perhaps it even served as an object lesson – shows pretty much everything that can go wrong when this theatrical avant-garde approach is applied to film without the meticulous care and imagination seen here. It is debatable – and some people will certainly disagree – that not even Jarman’s own earlier films, including a work as rich as Caravaggio, succeed as completely as this film. It should also be noted that Jarman has inspired some adventurous later filmmakers with his approach, notably Tom Kalin’s stunning debut, Swoon (1992), about the real-life killers and lovers Leopold and Loeb.
Yet despite its theatrical roots, both in Marlowe and twentieth century stage innovations, Edward II is purely cinematic. Jarman finds enormously creative ways to use the unique elements of its medium, as we’ve looked at throughout this review, including filmic rhythm – both between shots through editing and within shots through camera movement – and especially composition, as Jarman kinetically jumps us from a long shot to a close, sensuous detail. On a gut level, Edward II feels like a film and not just a photographed play, unlike say The Niklashausen Journey.
Let’s take an in-depth look at a defining moment, not only for this film but for all of Jarman’s cinema: Edward’s farewell to Gaveston, whom he’s been forced to banish, while Annie Lennox sings Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” As I mentioned above, this is also one of the few scenes which literally made me cry – for all of its in-your-face experimentalism.
This is a classic Jarman moment, and one of the most heartbreaking scenes I know. It comes about 30 minutes into the film (DVD Chapter 5) when Edward is forced, by his power-hungry, not to mention homophobic, lords, to exile his lover Gaveston. There are countless examples of ‘parting is such sweet sorrow’ scenes, but for me what makes Jarman’s take so profoundly moving and rich is his interplay of visual simplicity, intellectual density, and raw universal human emotion.
Although I shudder to think that I’m about to analyze this scene to death (my apologies in advance!), it’s a pivotal moment which reveals much not only about Jarman’s brilliant techniques in this film but in his others as well. Besides, no amount of explication can take away the sheer power of seeing and feeling this scene for the first – or second or third – time. And Jarman himself uses a bold distancing strategy – Annie Lennox’s performance – to allow us to experience the scene with, if anything, even greater emotional immediacy.
Here are Edward and Gaveston, two people who love each other not wisely but passionately, who are being forced to part yet again in order to preserve the monarchy’s decorum. From Marlowe’s play and Jarman’s direction, we understand the opportunistic political forces demanding Gaveston’s banishment: basically, the political ‘outs’ will stop at nothing, including the exploitation of homophobic disgust at a “sodomitical” king, to seize power. But what this scene excels at is the crystalization of feeling, here of the deepest loss. Marlowe includes lines of typical simplity and profundity, as when Edward tells Gaveston, “Thou from this land, I from myself am banish’d.” The words are in “Elizabethanese,” but who can’t relate to the deep feeling they express?
Paradoxically, Jarman accentuates the emotion by using his barren set to let us focus on feelings and ideas. He also strips down much of Marlowe’s dialogue, reducing it to its bare essentials. He knows that the immediacy of his actors will draw us in, whether they are whispering to each other, or kissing, or most improbably (in a cramped “realistic” sense) dancing with each other around the narrow spotlight, the sole illumination in this prisonlike chamber.
Now we come to Jarman’s crowning (tiny pun intended) inspiration. As he has his cast stop speaking Marlowe’s verse – the two lovers are simply being with each other, as if they have moved beyond words to pure raw emotion – he reveals Annie Lennox in the shadows singing: “Every time we say goodbye, I die a little, / Every time we say goodbye, I wonder why a little, / Why the gods above me, who must be in the know, / Think so little of me, they allow you to go….” (In a way, Porter’s lyric invites comparison with Marlowe’s dramatic verse, since both are based firmly on everyday speech, which is then raised through careful control of rhythm and a few choice images.) Lennox’s poignantly lucid rendering pulls this scene into a whole new intellectual, and then emotional dimension.
Jarman uses this melodious anachronism to wrench us out of our empathetic connection with Edward and Gaveston (shades of the “alienation effects” of Bertolt Brecht – who wrote his own adaptation of Edward II in 1923, Jean-Luc Godard, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder). Jarman gives us distance to contemplate what we are seeing, and feeling, even as Porter’s lyric suggests the movement of the plot (“the change from major” – Edward essentially begins in a brilliant gold robe, a veritable sun god with a male-model-perfect boyfriend at his side – “to minor,” as the lovelorn king’s darkest times fast approach). But unlike those past masters of artistic/political estrangement, Jarman moves beyond it, to a more radically evocative place.
By allowing the men to continue expressing their love through gesture, and Ms. Lennox to finish all of her gorgeous rendition of this song (perhaps the finest since Ella Fitzgerald’s classic 1955 recording), we find ourselves moving beyond the emotionally-distancing shock of a modern-day rock icon singing a song which won’t have been written until 350 years after the play’s premiere. We might also be aware that Jarman likely intended yet another layer, an autobiographical and political one, for this scene, which would have held special resonance for him and too many others. Lennox performed this same song on the 1990 AIDS benefit album, Red, Hot and Blue (in which many contemporary pop and rock stars reinterpret well-known Cole Porter songs; yet another layer is poignance comes knowing that Porter was himself gay, although married to an accommodating wife) – and Jarman had already known for five years that he was HIV-positive. Yet as those thoughts rise and subside, we are left with pure intense feeling.
In other words, after purposefully ‘breaking the mood’ – and then letting us distance ourselves from the layers of artifice – Jarman has miraculously, and uniquely, taken us to a place of even deeper feeling. He has made the emotion of the scene even more intensely real and heartbreaking than it was before. So for all of its aesthetic and even political distancing – and even though he uses only the most stripped-down visual style – ultimately Jarman lets the feeling rush (back) in with even greater force than if he had merely filmed the scene in a straight-forward style. Emotion refracted yields even richer feeling. As I said, this is one of the few scenes in any film that actually made me cry.
Of course, there is no need to (over-) analyze this scene, or any other, to be able to enjoy it. But as with all of Jarman’s films, the closer you look, the more there is to see and feel – and hear.
One of the most evocative, both beautiful and at times profoundly creepy, aspects of this picture is the original score by Simon Fisher-Turner, who composed music for virtually all of Jarman’s films. Fisher-Turner’s eclectic score ranges from the Elizabethan-like melody (jaunty yet heartsick, with lots of wind instruments), heard under the early scene with Gaveston and Spencer in France, to reverberant electronic pulses, which make the cavernous labyrinth even more unsettling: you can’t quite put your finger on why the hair is standing up on the back of your neck, but then – when you resee the film – you realize what an integral, but subtle, role the underscoring plays in nailing the emotional resonance of scenes.
Jarman also uses sound to great effect, as in a few scenes in the first two-thirds of the film when he suggests bustling crowds (in both France and England) just off-screen solely by what we hear. This is cost-effective, to be sure, but it also creates a ghostly effect which fits well with the entire film: in effect, everything we see and hear – with Jarman’s frame story of Edward in his final cell – is in effect echoing around inside the doomed king’s fevered imagination.
Let’s now look at perhaps the richest ambiguity in the film: the sexually-charged jailer/hunk, Lightborn (Kevin Collins), who seems equally adept at kissing either the Queen or King of England. With Jarman using Edward’s imprisonment as a frame story, instead of waiting till the last minutes of the play, we see Lightborn in the first seconds. With a droll visual pun, he enters carrying a lantern: Lightborn is literally ‘bearing’ a ‘light.’ (If you really want to go out on a limb, you’re welcome to make connections between the ambiguous character of Lightborn, his lantern, and Jarman playing with the suggestion of a film projector and hence suggesting something about The Nature Of Cinema – that it’s both enticing and destructive?; Jarman is certainly capable of making those suggestive connections – but I’m going to stand on more “firma” critical “terra”, recalling that Lightborn’s name and abstruse nature are there in Marlowe – 300 years before Cinema’s birth – but if you want to do a really out-there reading, please, go for it.)
I think Lightborn is perhaps the most richly ambiguous character in this film and maybe even in all of Jarman’s pictures. He electrifies the screen simply by appearing, without saying a word. But this is not your garden variety of charisma; there is something deeper and more elusive about his power. And that is, of course, exactly what Jarman wants to bring this character. Lightborn is firmly based on Marlowe but here he resonates more than I ever thought possible when reading the play. Rarely has a character been so purely sweet and so purely sinister at the same time. Lightborn is typically summed up as a “sadist” in commentaries on Marlowe’s play, but vastly richer is Jarman and Collins’s realization of the man. He seems genuinely to love Edward, whom he comes to know during Edward’s protracted imprisonment, even though Edward and we know that he is also the king’s executioner. And not only that, but the deviser of his final – and unspeakably homophobic – torture and murder; of course, he’s only acting on orders from the rulers, so what can he do? Right? Oscar Wilde once famously, and sadly, wrote that “each man kills the thing he loves,” but I think this Lightborn is much more psychological complex, and elusive, than that.
Or is Edward’s death by anal impalement in the film, unlike both the play and history itself, supposed to be merely Edward’s erotically-charged nightmare of union with Lightborn? Note that while Jarman uses Edward in his prison cell throughout virtually the entire film as a framing device, he inverts (pun intended) time at the end, so that Edward seems to be awakening from the nightmare of his own torture/murder, only to find Lighborn throwing the (to-be fatal) poker into the pool and (at last) kissing him tenderly. Yes, it’s a Judas Kiss – but perhaps more too. Or is this a romantic fantasy Edward is concocting at the moment of his death? If Jarman’s, even more than Marlowe’s, characters would less psychologically rich and emotionally resonant, I’d roll by eyeballs at all of this ‘death dream’ ambiguity; but as with the Annie Lennox scene, again Jarman completely enthralls me with the brilliance and mysterious depth of his vision: he much more than gets away with it, he triumphs.
Yet another part of Lightborn’s mystique comes from the fact that Jarman cast Kevin Collins, the life partner of his final years. The two met in 1987, at the Tyneside Film festival, and fell in love. Within a few months they were sharing a home in London; they remained together until Jarman’s death in 1994. Besides this film, Jarman also cast Collins in The Garden and Wittgenstein. Also, both men were ardent campaigners with with the GLBT rights group, OutRage!, which makes two surprising but, upon reflection, thematically on-target appearances in the film.
Why is this anachronism so apt? Because it gets to the heart and soul of both Marlowe’s play and Jarman’s film, and perhaps even both artists’ deepest political – and spiritual – visions. Edward II was the most radically gay-affirmative work not only of the Renaissance but since the flourishing of GLBT life in the civilized ancient worlds of Greece and Rome. More importantly, it dramatizes the implications – personal and political – of same-sex love confronting the deepest, and most demonstrably destructive and wrong assumptions of a repressive society, whether Edward II’s or Marlowe’s England or Jarman’s and our own culture today. Yet despite the novelty of Jarman’s using Outrage! (whose impassioned members wave banners saying “Get Your Filthy Laws Off Our Bodies,” “Stop Violence Against Lesbians and Gay Men” and more), his film, like Marlowe’s play, is much more than a one-dimensional attack on homophobia.
Edward II, in both its forms, shows the profound – disturbing – similarities, including the blindness, between love and desire, whether in same-sex or opposite-sex form. Marlowe and Jarman depict homoeroticism as a part of everyday life, albeit often, but not exclusively, using characters from the ruling class – whether aristocracy, military, or clergy – or even famous examples from Western culture. Although he omits the many Biblical contenders, such as David and Jonathan (“surpassing the love of women”), Ruth and Naomi, and Christ’s follower the centurion with his so-called “eunuch” lover (this leaves aside Marlowe’s intimation, mentioned above, about Jesus and his “beloved disciple” John), Marlowe includes a full complement of Greco-Roman luminaries, from both mythology and history. (The same-sex cultural tradition has been known to many for centuries, despite periodic censorship, including the recent legislation in some US states to remove all gay-positive books from public libraries, including university ones.) Ironically, in Marlowe the following lines (I.iv.391–400) are spoken by Mortimer’s kindly uncle to his sadistic nephew, while Jarman transfers the speech to Edward’s straight-arrow brother Kent (whom Jarman makes a slightly more complex character than Marlowe), while he is being massaged by a handsome lad and trying to stir up some sympathy in Isabella:
[King Edward II’s] nature … is mild and calm,
And, seeing his mind so doats on Gaveston,
Let him without controlment have his will.
The mightiest kings have had their minions:
Great Alexander loved Hephestion;
The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept;
And for Patroclus stern Achilles drooped
And not kings only, but the wisest men:
The Roman Tully* lov’d Octavius; [*”Tully” was Cicero]
Grave Socrates, wild Alcibiades….
But more than ancient history, what is so subversive about these two works is their sheer humanity. They live in Marlowe’s play, and for some even more so on Jarman’s screen.
Edward and Gaveston, just by being ‘out, loud and proud’ – by being sensuously and even contradictorily human – effectively challenge the power base of the regime, which we see is more the council of nobles and their uniformed accomplices in the church and military than the king himself. Those oligarchs rightly fear that once even a fraction of their immense hypocrisy is exposed that the rest of their deceptions and lies, including homophobia and sexism – which they are likely as subject to as, well, their subjects – will begin to crumble. Jarman’s wittiest technique for showing Edward’s rebelliousness is not the many openly-erotic scenes between him and Gaveston, or later Spencer, but rather Edward’s hair. In contrast to the jarhead look of Mortimer, and his militaristic minions, Edward has long, flowing, “effeminate” hair: how disturbing to the repressed ‘control freak’ Mortimer and the other uptight lords and bishops. Jarman emphasizes Edward’s mane at several key points, including an early scene when he and Gaveston are tussling in bed, near the middle of the film when he’s at his emotional nadir (this is in the frame story prison, so if the story were being told chronologically this would be much later), and at the end, after his torture/murder, when his long hair hangs lankly down the execution table. Depose and murder a guy because of his hairdo? To the Mortimers of the world, that makes perfect sense.
Marlowe and Jarman, and many others, know that fantasy and hypocrisy (privately, Mortimer likes being whipped by a boy in drag) are not a solid foundation on which to construct a life, let alone a civilization, no matter how loudly and often you shout about its “moral basis.” We of course require basic repression to coexist in a society (as in treat others the way you want to be treated – assuming that one is emotionally stable, of course), but when it becomes excessive – as in the pathological need to control the most intimate aspects of every person’s life – you strangle individuals and entire cultures. Ironically, even though Edward refuses to moralize about either politics or sexuality (although that doesn’t stop either Marlowe or Jarman) – he just wants to love the man he loves as he never could when his kingly father was alive – he is still, at a deep level, a seditious threat to the status quo. Add (self-)consciousness to that mix, and you understand how radical Marlowe was in his life as well as his plays in 1591; how subversive Jarman was in his life as well as his art, films and books today.
What makes both Marlowe’s play and Jarman’s picture masterpieces, I believe, is that they never settle for simple, cheap explanations of anything. The play progresses, on one level, through round after vengeful round of bloodshed, but the actual violence begins with Gaveston, who pays back the obese bishop who arranged his exile by having him stripped and beaten. Not surprisingly, the prostrate clergyman curses Gaveston – and, oh yes, he does get his revenge against the comely lad later, in even more definitive terms.
Dominating the play, if not his own kingdom, Edward is a figure of genuine pathos. He even partakes of some tragic grandeur, though not on the level of an Oedipus or a King Lear – despite Jarman’s equivalent of Lear’s scene on the heath: here Edward, on his knees during a violent tempest, screams out his grief over Gaveston. Edward is more like the title character of Shakespeare’s Richard II: that underrated play, written a few years after Marlowe’s play, gives us a tantalizing idea of what a Shakespearean version of Edward II might have been like, since the two works share much in common). But for all of his wit and passion, and demonstrable humanity, Edward is also psychologically complex – riddled with contradictions, with wide swathes of self-blindness, and a downright nasty temper.
We are certainly horrified by his fate, including the nauseatingly homophobic mode of his execution (‘an eye for an eye,’ a red-hot poker for a…), which so monstrously joins both the erotic and the political, and which points up the sadistic desperation of the new rulers. (Let me add that I’m sure I’m not the only one who wonders, more than ever after seeing this film, what kind of horrors were actually committed by jailors on their prisoners at places like Abu Ghraib.) But Edward is never completely sympathetic, at least not in a cheaply conventional way as in Mel Gibson’s interminable Braveheart. Edward made foolish choices based on his own self-indulgence; yes, he loved Gaveston – and Gaveston loved him – and the depth of their passion, as directed by Jarman, made me weep. But even their relationship has strands of ambiguity. The messy kind we know from real life; the kind that terrifies absolutists, like Mortimer or the bishop or perhaps even Isabella, to the shadowy brittle cores of their souls. It makes you wonder if their lust for power and absolute control is so that they can pass laws against, and have their eager clean-cut soldiers and police enforce on pain of death, what they fear the most: ambiguity, complexity. And difference. And anything that makes them squirm – like maybe Edward II. But the self-blinding myth that absolute control equals “safety,” or that suffocating repression equals “morality,” is as dangerous as, say, confusing either self-indulgence (Edward) or power-lust (Isbabella, Mortimer) with love.
To their credit, neither play nor film ever descends into simple-minded rainbow-flag-waving ‘bad fascist straights, noble tragic gays’ dichotomies. Both in their works and even, arguably, in their lives, Marlowe and Jarman suggest that the dark flip side of liberation might, sometimes, be self-destruction, just as the flip side of sanctimonious oppression produces the bloody and tragic events we see in Edward II – and of course you can extend those insights into today’s news.
Yet Jarman’s film, at least as much as Marlowe’s play, is more than a dramatic analysis of psycho-political events; it is cathartic in the fullest possible sense. It stuns us with its ravishing beauty and its profoundly disturbing insights, at least as much as with its violence. Even more, it charges us both politically and, at the deepest level, personally, not only to be true to ourselves but to understand, and to be wary of, how very precarious the line can be separating a Mortimer from an Edward, a Gaveston from an Isabella. Beware Edward’s follies and Mortimer’s rigid certainties – not to mention Marlowe’s own tragically prophetic motto: “What nourishes me, destroys me” – but don’t let their cautionary fates keep you from exploring the ways in which you can be your fullest and truest self.
- Directed by Jarman
- Adapted for the screen by Jarman, Stephen McBride & Ken Butler, Based on Christopher Marlowe’s play
- Produced by Steve Clark-Hall and Antony Root
- Executive Producers: Simon Curtis & Sarah Radclyffe
- Cinematography by Ian Wilson
- Production Design by Christopher Hobbs
- Art Direction by Ricky Eyres
- Costume Design by Sandy Powell
- Sound Editor Sarah Vickers
- Edited by Lesley Walker
- Original Music by Simon Fisher-Turner Additional Music:
- Mozart’s Divertimento in F Major (K. 138)
- Cole Porter’s song “Ev’ry Time We say Goodbye”
- Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from his ballet The Nutcracker
- Steven Waddington as Edward II
- Kevin Collins as Lightborn, the Jailor
- Andrew Tiernan as Piers Gaveston
- John Lynch as Spencer
- Dudley Sutton as Bishop of Winchester
- Tilda Swinton as Isabella, the Queen
- Jerome Flynn as Kent
- Jody Graber as Prince Edward (later King Edward III)
- Nigel Terry as Mortimer
- Jill Balcon as Chorus of Nobility
- Barbara New as Chorus of Nobility
- Andrea Miller as Chorus of Nobility
- Brian Mitchell as Chorus of Nobility
- David Glover as Chorus of Nobility
- John Quentin as Chorus of Nobility
- Andrew Charleson as Chorus of Nobility
- Roger Hammond as the Bishop
- Allan Corduner as the Poet
- Annie Lennox as the Singer
- Tony Forsyth as the Captive Policeman
- Lloyd Newson as a Dancer
- Nigel Charnock as a Dancer
- Mark Davis as a Sailor
- Andy Jeffrey as a Sailor
- Barry Clarke as the Man with Snake
- John Henry Duncan as an Altar Boy
- Thomas Duncan as an Altar Boy
- Giles De Montigny as a Soldier on Guard
- Jonathan Stables as a Soldier on Guard
- Michael Watkins as a Soldier on Guard
- Robb Dennis as a Soldier on Guard
- David Oliver as a Thug
- Chris McHallem as a Thug
- Christopher Adamson as a Thug
- Danny Earl as a Thug
- Kim Dare as a Wild Girl
- Kristina Overton as a Wild Girl
- Trevor Skingle as the Gym Instructor
- Christopher Hobbs as the Equerry
- Sandy Powell as a Seamstress
- Kate Temple as a Seamstress
- Andrew Lee Bolton as the Masseur
- Liz Ranken as a Sexy Girl
- Renee Eyre as a Sexy Girl
- Sharon Munro as a Sexy Girl
- Daniel Bevan as a Youth
- Ian Francis as a Youth
- James Norton as a Youth
- Tristam Cones as a Youth
- Jocelyn Pook as Elektra Quartet, Viola
- Abigail Brown as Elektra Quartet, Violin
- Sonia Slany as Elektra Quartet, Violin
- Dinah Beamish as Elektra Quartet, Cello
Music plays an integral part in Edward II, and all of Jarman’s films. Here is the soundtrack listing, which offers more detail than that provided in the closing credits, including titles for Simon Fisher-Turner’s individual musical cues. The album does not follow the film chronologically. It is released by Mute Records (US), CD IONIC 8 (1991).
- The End Credits (6:39)
- Front Credits
- Morocco Pop
- Bishop and Dead Ed I (5:36)
- Seamstress i
- Seamstress ii
- Edward Rejects the Queen
- Riot Scene 1, 2, 3
- Cocktail Party Blues (9:14)
- Poem for a King
- The King Subscribes
- Jodi Beef
- Jodi Hat
- Edward Pop (4:25)
- Mortimer’s Revenge
- Gaveston’s Death
- Yer Highness (2:25)
- Chess, Checkmate (9:22)
- Face Pack
- Wakey Wednesday
- Clarinet Corridor
- Sugar Plum Fairy
- Photo Session
- Royal Truncheon
- Gaveston’s Return (6:57)
- Lying in State
- Drop Glock
- Beagles and Mud
- The Big Room
- The Butcher (1:17)
- Jingle Bells
- Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye (2:48)
- The Peacock (4:50)
- The Queen’s Speech
- Beagle Church
- Ah Mortimer (2:43)
- Let Me Forget Myself (11:25)
- Electricity 41
- Acid Dungeon
- Gaveston on the Run
- Edward’s Murder
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 release has good image and sound quality. It is a special bonus to have the complete video clip of Tilda Swinton, Jarman’s friend and the actress most closely associated with his films, reciting her unforgettable tribute to him on the fiftieth anniversary of his birth (and the eighth of his death).
- Aspect ratio of 1.85:1, enhanced for 16×9
- Dolby Digital 5.1 Stereo
- Theatrical Trailer
- Behind-the-Scenes Featurette: actress Tilda Swinton reads her moving tribute, “In the Spirit of Derek Jarman,” at the Edinburgh Film Festival in August 2002
- $19.99 suggested retail
Reviewed June 14, 2005 / Revised October 20, 2020