Jarman the icon. Jarman the experimentalist. Jarman the punk. Jarman the queer. Derek Jarman’s adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II was made three years prior to his death from an AIDS-related illness. It is not only his most politically outspoken film, it is also the film that brings together the various strands of his career : It is a radical interpretation of an Elizabethan play, It is shot with all of the stylised pomp and careful staging of a 1980s music video and it speaks directly to the gay community’s history of oppression at the hands of self-righteous British establishment.
Marlowe’s Edward II is first and foremost a work about a conflict central to the existence of a head of state. A conflict between the King as a public figure with responsibilities to his people, his ministers and his office and the King as a private individual with his own hopes, desires and beliefs. The play explores this tension by examining the life of Edward II.
Edward II was the son of Edward I Longshanks. A Plantagenet Caesar who used military force to subdue the Welsh, the Scottish and the Irish, bringing them under the control of the English Crown. He was a ruthless and dictatorial figure who used his imposing size to dominate those around him. Edward II was no chip off the old block. At the beginning of the play, Edward (Steven Waddington) has married Isabella of France (Tilda Swinton) and had a child. His position seemingly secure, he sends for his favourite, the exiled Piers Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan). Gaveston, though not of noble birth, claims to be better than the common man and claims to know the King’s mind better than any. He begins to plan a future for them together :
Music and poetry is his delight;
Therefore I’ll have Italian masques by night,
Sweet speeches, comedies, and pleasing shows;
And in the day, when he shall walk abroad,
Like sylvan nymphs my pages shall be clad;
My men, like satyrs grazing on the lawns,
Shall with their goat-feet dance an antic hay.
Sometime a lovely boy in Dian’s shape,
With hair that gilds the water as it glides,
Crownets of pearl about his naked arms,
And in his sportful hands an olive tree
To hide those parts which men delight to see,
Shall bathe him in a spring; and there, hard by,
One like Actaeon, peeping through the grove,
Shall by the angry goddess be transformed,
And running in the likeness of a hart
By yelping hounds pulled down and seem to die.
Such things as these best please his majesty.
Upon returning, Gaveston exacts bloody revenge upon some of the nobles responsible for his exile. He then gleefully accepts Edward’s gifts of titles and riches and delights the King so much that Edward has no time for either his country, his court or his wife. Angry with the King’s devotion to Gaveston, the piers of the realm start to complain and coalesce around the ambitious Mortimer (Nigel Terry), demanding that the King’s favourite be returned to exile. Fearing war, the King accepts but Gaveston’s absence weighs so heavily on his mind that he withdraws even further into himself. Isabella sees an opportunity to win back the King’s favour and convinces Mortimer to recall Gaveston so that he might be murdered. However, the King is only briefly reunited with Gaveston before the nobles find a reason to have him executed. Disgusted, Edward turns his back on Isabella and takes up with a new favourite, giving the nobles the excuse they needed to depose him. Isabella and Mortimer then take control as regents for the young Edward III while his father is quietly murdered. However, Isabella and Mortimer’s triumph is short-lived as Edward III gets wind of their plotting and has them both executed, taking the throne for himself.
Marlowe’s play contains two tragedic strands : The downfall of Edward II and the rise and fall of Mortimer. However, which of these strands is the more tragic depends largely upon what you consider Edward II’s fatal tragic flaw to be. At the time of publication, the rumours regarding Edward II’s sexuality were not widely known and so it was possible to interpret Edward as simply a weak king who preferred hanging out with his best friend to the demands of a life as head of state. This reading has persisted to this day despite a much wider acceptance of Edward II’s homosexuality (due in no small part to Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995) painting him as an incompetent dandy), with the King being either childishly infatuated with Gaveston or a slave of his own sexual desires. Obviously, this reading plays into many broad homophobic stereotypes and serves to elevate Mortimer from an opportunistic Iago to a striver who wants to clear away some of the aristocratic dead wood for the sake of the Kingdom (as well as himself), much like Edmund the Bastard in King Lear.
However, Jarman understandably rejects this interpretation of the play. His Edward is a strong and decisive man who knows what and whom he wants out of life, but who is constrained by his position as King and ultimately brought down by a homophobic and greedy peerage spurred on by ambitious Mortimer and the vindictive Queen Isabella.
Jarman’s Edward II is not merely stylised, it is a careful visual composition. Every shot is evocatively lit and beautifully staged. The film’s image of England is that of a maze of grey stone walls. A monolithic tomb of a place comparable to anything dreamt up by the ancient Egyptians. Like everyone else, Jarman’s Edward is trapped inside this vast echoing structure, unable to get out or even see beyond its miserable confines. When we first encounter Gaveston he is free of this horrible constrictive world. He is sitting on a bed shared by two passionately snogging muscle-bound sailors. As he delivers the speech quoted above, he dreams of bringing colour to his beloved’s world. Jarman hints at the kind of colour he has in mind by showing us a man in a posing pouch writhing about with a gigantic snake.
Returned to England, Gaveston’s scenes with Edward are full of dancing, light, tenderness and passion. He transforms England from a cage into a home. Meanwhile, Mortimer is a militaristic figure. When we first encounter him he is posed with a number of soldiers seemingly guarding a tomb. Mortimer is a guardian of the old ways, but he is also a hypocrite as his speeches are frequently delivered while he cavorts with transvestites, constrained by fetish gear he is submissive to the weight of public opinion. As we see from his spectacular faux fur dressing gown, Jarman’s Mortimer is practically a closet-case.
Jarman reinvents the chorus of nobility as a pack of grandees : The great and the good drearily made up of MPs and Lords and modelled on Mary Whitehouse’s hideous hordes. Noble Chorus as Chorus of Light. Isabella, by contrast is a much more ambiguous figure. Part Evita Peron, part Margaret Thatcher, part Princess Diana and part Audrey Hepburn, she radiates a political glamour. Initially, the glamour marks her out as a friend to the King. A flamboyant presence in an otherwise drab world. Her passion and love for her King kept hidden from the world behind huge sunglasses and 80s outfits. However, when the King turns his back on her the glamour becomes almost a symbol of authority. No longer a way of hiding her passion, it is now a means of hiding a cold, vindictive and vampiric nature.
However, in addition to queering and eroticising Edward and Gaveston’s relationship and painting the forces of noble entitlement as 1980s moralists and establishment blue pencils, Jarman also presents the play’s military clashes as Gay rights marches in which protesters march through the palace with banners only to be beaten down by thuggish riot police.
While Jarman is eager to reclaim Edward II not only as a prominent historical homosexual, but also as a strong and decisive character with any number of good qualities, he is also aware of his shortcomings. There is a profound irony to Edward’s Kingship in that despite being King, he could not secure for himself the life he wanted to live. Of course, this irony is two-fold as had Edward abdicated then he would have had the power to spend the rest of his life with Gaveston without fear of molestation. Jarman fully accepts the ambiguity in the character and brilliantly presents it to us as being similar to the irony of closet homosexuals in positions of power. Jarman’s Edward is a loving and devoted man who would risk all for love, but he is also a man who is easily forced into back tracking and compromising from a position of weakness. When Gaveston first returns, Edward is his father’s son : He does what he wants and he kills anyone who stands in his way. But as time goes on, he cowers from the disapproval of the establishment. Rather than lashing out at them, he gives in, weakening himself in the process and giving the nobles a taste for blood : If the son of Longshanks can be bullied into sending away the man he loves, what else might he agree to? This is similar to gay men in power who allowed their homosexuality to be used against them. Had they been openly gay then they would have been in stronger positions.
This is something of a master-stroke as it places Edward in the same boat as Mortimer and reflects the fact that Marlowe’s Edward II contains not one but two tragedies. Edward is destroyed by both his refusal to be a prince (in the Macchiavellian sense) and his refusal to stop being a king. Mortimer is bisexual but he is willing to be a prince and to keep his private life private. However, he too is ultimately destroyed by Edward III who has an even more efficient balance of public and private lives… a child who is willing to be a prince and deal with his enemies and a child who allows what homosexual proclivities he might have to be public and a source of strength rather than weakness. One of the final images of the film is of the Queen and Mortimer trapped in a cage while the young Edward III, resplendent in earrings and make-up dances around on top of them.
Throughout the play, Marlowe’s characters ask in his exquisite blank verse “Why should you love him whom the world hates so?”. Edward answers “Because he loves me more than all the world”. A beautiful sentiment sure enough and undeniably true to how Edward feels. However, as the play suggests, he might well have lead a better life had he had as snappy and elegant an answer to a slightly different question : “How should you love him whom the world hates so?”. Edward has no answer, Mortimer has a partial one but Edward III, in Jarman’s view, has the right one : With all my heart and a hand on my sword.