Sunday, 16 July 2017

Edward II (1991)

"Is it not QUEER that he is thus bewitched?"

Based on the Renaissance play by Christoper Marlowe of the same name (though in fact the proper title of the first publication in 1593 is the rather unwieldy 'The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer' - try fitting that on the front of the Odeon!) Derek Jarman's 1991 film is a joyous, dark and bloody postmodern take on Marlowe's text, full of the kind of anachronisms and flamboyancy that he had previously toyed with in Caravaggio.

Marlowe's play was unusual for its time in that it portrayed the homosexuality of King Edward II and his infatuation with the nobleman Piers Gaveston quite openly. But this theme is brought even further to the fore with Jarman's take, which claims that it was the gay relationship the king enjoyed with Gaveston that sparked the bloody coup against Edward by his own wife, Queen Isabella, and her political and romantic ally Roger Mortimer, and which ultimately brought about Edward's downfall. Historically of course, Edward's reign was doomed for several reasons, including the heavy losses he endured in Scotland to Robert the Bruce, but Jarman specifically chooses the sexuality angle and the strange yet delicious mishmash of styles - England of the 1300s (as represented in the language used) and England of 1991 (as represented in the many modern touches throughout the film, the contemporary fashions, riot police and Outrage gay rights protesters)  - to address the theme of institutionalised homophobia and  the oppression of gay people throughout history.

This is a sublime example of the New Queer Cinema school of filmmaking that was prolific at the tail end of the 1980s and the start of the '90s. Jarman delivers an assured and accomplished production that is bolstered by its anachronistic playfulness and its committed cast. Steven Waddington and Andrew Tiernan work so well together and are excellent as the doomed Edward and Gaveston; dressed at times like Soho toughs in their black suits, hanging out with similarly sharp Jerome Flynn and John Lynch, whilst at others they are the epitome of gay couple cuteness in their silk pyjamas. Tilda Swinton's Isabella is an elegant Eva Peron style courtly goddess, possessing real demonic fire beneath her icy exterior, whilst Nigel Terry is the very model of the modern Major General as Mortimer; all bristly 'tache, military jumper and beret, and some clear sadomasochistic tendencies.

Whilst Jarman fully embraces the mixture of  mixture of contemporary and medieval props and styles far more so here than he did with Caravaggio, I do feel that it was the earlier film that is perhaps overall the better production in terms of story and narrative. However, it is in Edward II's acceptance of these anachronisms, that the film succeeds far more with some utterly stunning and memorable, wholly cinematic setpieces that linger long in the memory; The sailors casually fucking on Gaveston's bed as the film commences; Gaveston, cast out of court and clad in jeans and a leather jacket, spat upon by row upon row of disapproving, venomous clergy (only Bronski Beat's Smalltown Boy can evoke a time and feeling as well as this key moment); Swinton's Isabella showing her teeth, literally, in a gory scene featuring Jerome Flynn as her brother-in-law;  Edward's army of gay rights protesters confronting the shield beating, helmeted riot police with placards proclaiming that 'Gay Desire Is Not A Crime'; Edward's horrific premonition of the legend of his violent demise - a red hot poker inserted into his rectum by his gaoler, Lightborn (the anglicised name for Lucifer) But perhaps best and most sweetest of all is the scene when Annie Lennox pops up to serenade Edward and Gaveston on the eve of the latter's exile,with her beautiful rendition of Cole Porter's 1944 song Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye.

Edward II is recommended for admirers of historical tragedy handled with a bit of experimentation and innovation, and for fans of LGBT cinema, because it is so refreshingly out and proud. As such it is also the perfect antidote to Mel Gibson's Braveheart which, on it release just four years later, would depict Edward II in a deeply unpleasant homophobic manner as well as tie history up in knots with its claim that William Wallace somehow wooed, bedded and ultimately altered the royal bloodline by having an affair with Queen Isabella who was actually still an infant when Wallace was alive.

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