“The sight of London to my exiled eyes is as Elysium to a new-come soul.”
‘Edward II’, directed by Derek Jarman in 1991, is an historical movie based on the play by Christopher Marlowe. As with Jarman’s earlier ‘Caravaggio’, ‘Edward II’ mixes period detail and events with modern, anachronistic dress, fashions and dialogue. The king is obsessed with his courtier Piers Gaveston, and as such showers honours and titles on him. The bishops, the army and, most troublingly, his wife object to his lover affair and plot to initially oust Gaveston and then to usurp Edward himself. The dramatic beats of the play (not one I’m familiar with) are here and are recognisable to anyone with a passing knowledge of Shakespeare’s histories. By shifting details to a modern setting, and through his sets, design work and his occasional slips into abstraction, Jarman retools the story and turns it into a commentary on the struggle for gay rights in the 1980s and 1990s. This is explicitly done: towards the end of the play, the army, portrayed as riot police, fight Edward’s supporters, portrayed by placard carrying members of the British gay rights organisation Outrage. As such, the movie becomes a story that narrates the tensions between the liberal, hedonistic and progressive monarchy and the bigoted, fascistic armed forces and church. Jarman’s film is full of striking and homoerotic imagery, but as with ‘Caravaggio’, it is an interior movie, giving it the claustrophobic feel of a stage play but also making each encounter between the actors that much more intense. It’s a film in which the traditional tropes of the Elizabethan historical plays are retooled to provide a brilliant and searing critique of the state of gay rights in the late twentieth century.
Would I recommend it? Yes – it tells an engrossing story, but more importantly it drills down into a social issue that is still evolving today. Watch in a slightly obvious double-bill with ‘Caravaggio’.