JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Edward II (Director: Derek Jarman) - November 15, 2004
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Edward II

3.5 3.5
91 min.

Timeless tragedy more potent than ever

But what are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?

—King Edward
The Tragedy of Edward the Second, Act V, Scene I

Revisited more than a dozen years after its release, Derek Jarman’s broad adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragedy of Edward the Second (1592) still resonates on many planes, but more from its depiction of power-at-any-cost than bold representation of homosexual love and culture.

Jarman’s portrayal of the physical intimacy between Edward II (Steven Waddington in a close to but never over-the-top performance) and Piers Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan whose intensity—particularly his howls of devastation in the teeming downpour—is compelling) is discreet and loving. The balance of unabashed desire and naïve playfulness (the pair dances gaily in their pajamas and partakes of all manner of entertainments including the Elektra String Quartet’s pitch-uncertain Mozart, a literary reading, and a sensuous python pas de deux) makes them the ideal couple rather than pitiable sodomists. And, like relationships everywhere, despite their poetic protestations of unending love, both manage to stray: Gaveston for Spencer (John Lynch looking menacingly sultry at every turn); Edward for power—he banishes his lover to maintain the “contentment” of power.

Christopher Hobbs’ production design is equally commendable, using stark castle walls for the backdrop, but conjuring considerable detail by employing a variety of soundscapes that fill in the visual blanks whether the scene is a corporate board room or a hospital ward: aural set dressing extraordinaire. That technique, along with extensive use of modern-day dress, permits the seamless shift from epoch to epoch, adding further depth to the universality of the themes.

Edward’s spurned Queen, Isabella, leads much of the action. Tilda Swinton is more than up to the task. She stoically survives personal embarrassment when her unquenchable sexual drive is teasingly ignited by Gaveston and, later—in a scene that shames the attempts of many others to display true vampire lust—chows down on her “traitorous” brother-in-law’s neck (Jerome Flynn), literally sucking the life out of him, even as her son stares on.

The young Edward (Jody Graber) is effectively used by Jarman to represent innocence (he wanders the passageways with a flashlight—stumbling on a covey of athletes whose subsequent scrum is feasted upon by Ian Wilson’s camera, yielding a spectacular Greek moment where the naked male form is celebrated for its beauty rather than hidden away in designer sportswear), curiosity (trying on his mother’s clothes, tasting his uncle’s blood) and hereditary intelligence (conducting Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”—nice touch—above those who preyed on his immaturity only to end up squatting in an animal cage).

The timeless struggle between Church and State is also fodder for the subtext of the Proteus-like personae: those who eagerly shift their “shapes” in order to escape calamity or confuse others (cross-reference below to another multi-level film that relates a tale of “forbidden” love). Tellingly, in 2004 with so many sexual abuse suits and trials rolling through the media in an unstoppable tide, the early scene where the Bishop is beaten produces more a feeling of justice than outrage.

Equally apt is Mortimer (Nigel Terry, totally believable as the power hungry Earl—completely at home eliminating all who stand in his way or harnessed up in his leathers, savouring the pain from high heels being ground into his back) wearing twentieth century military rigs and reading Unholy Babylon (Adel Darwish and Gregory Alexander’s 1991 book that asserts U.S. involvement in the Gulf is only about oil) in post-coitus bliss with the scorned Queen.

Similarly, using the early ’90s clashes between the “authorities” and those then demanding rights for gays and lesbians—to the point where a cop kills the unrepentant Gaveston—could, today, just as easily have been those who demonstrate against the war in Iraq or the travesty of Sudan.

The film, Edward II, hasn’t changed a frame since its production, but because the world has moved on—especially in the broad reaches of sexuality—Jarman’s savvy skill and fearless point of view, like a delicate fruity wine, has more to appreciate with age.

And yet, ere that day come,
The king shall lose his crown; for we have power
And courage too, to be reveng’d at full.

—Mortimer Junior
The Tragedy of Edward the Second, Act I, Scene II
JWR

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