Just moments into Edward II (1991), his startling and singular radicalization of Christopher Marlowe, Derek Jarman declares his independence from the sixteenth-century source. As a pair of nude sailors lip and suck each other upon his bed, Piers Gaveston, the exiled Earl of Cornwall, declares that he’s heartened to learn of the death of one King Edward and the rise of another. Edward II is the prince who had, years before, scandalously succumbed to Gaveston’s allurements. Those allurements plainly discernible beneath his diaphanous shift, Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan) glides around a bedpost with a pole dancer’s élan and then appends to a line of Marlowe’s poetry — “As for the multitude, that are but sparks, raked up in embers of their poverty” — a libertine “fuck ’em!” The men behind him lip and suck on.
Fuck ’Em might have been this Edward II’s subtitle. Still the bracing jolt it was in ’91, Jarman’s sparely elegant but urgently brazen recasting of Marlowe’s tragedy seizes the theme of the historic (and artistic) vilification of homosexuality. The points are baldly driven home in one battle scene: Rather than the usual swordplay, Jarman has men in contemporary police riot gear squaring off against ACT UP–style protesters. (“Gay Desire Is Not a Crime” declares one sign.)
The real Gaveston was executed in 1312 after the real monarch refused to banish him again. Jarman centers men’s bodies in his frames throughout the film, including a study of a strongman wrapped in a snake, a glimpse of an army workout right out of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ “Is Anyone Here for Love” number and a flash-lit vision of nude warriors in a scrum. But the true shock, as always in productions of Marlowe’s play, comes right from the 1500s: “Is it not queer that he is this bewitched?” asks the queen (Tilda Swinton) of her husband, upon Gaveston’s return.
Jarman and his cast dance and feast upon Marlowe’s subtext. But for all its bold provocations and welcome score settling, this Edward II (now playing in a new digital restoration) also is a triumph of drama and dramaturgy. Shooting in a sort of idealized subterranean theater space, Jarman proves tirelessly inventive in his staging and composition, employing dance and shadow play, layered tableaux, and arresting anachronism. Dig the military berets, the Nineties hit-man suits, the cigarettes, the string quartets, the Annie Lennox musical number, the Ralph Lauren hoodie, the book about the first Gulf War read by one principal in bed. One confrontation, midway through the film, finds his cast assembled in formal wear in the rough-hewn stage space, looking for all the world like attendees at 1991’s swankiest gallery opening; another, toward the end, finds a young man hung up for butchery next to literal meat, the kind of thing those gallerygoers might have been thronging to regard.
The performances unite the declarative address of the theater with film acting’s intimacy and tenderness; Swinton’s steely apathy makes her a standout, and not just because she’s the one who gets to practice crossbow while delivering a monologue in a smashing gown. Jarman’s film — his penultimate narrative feature, coming just three years before his death, at the age of 52 — might draw us in with its audacity, but just as crucial to its power is its dramatic integrity.
Directed by Derek Jarman
Opens May 4, IFC Center
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