But what are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?
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
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
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
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.
The Tragedy of Edward the Second, Act I, Scene II