Home Video Hovel: Edward II, by David Bax
I owe an apology to Derek Jarman. Or, at least, seventeen-year-old me does. When I saw Julie Taymor’s Titus at that young age, I thought her decision to set the story not in the modern day but in a place out of time, representing every era from ancient Rome to the present, was an astonishing one. To be fair, I still think so. Titus remains a staggering achievement. But I was too green and sheltered to know at the time that Jarman got there first. His Edward II (1991), adapted from the play by Christopher Marlowe, is replete with knowing anachronisms, as characters smoke cigarettes, wear leather jackets and taffeta dresses designed by Sally Powell and occasionally retreat from Marlowe’s poetic dialogue, reducing it to sentiments such as, “Fuck ‘em.”
Steven Waddington stars as the newly crowned King Edward II, who is interested in matters of ruling not at all and prefers to spend his time with his favourite, Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan). Jarman does away with the classical euphemisms, though, and makes it perfectly clear that Edward and Gaveston are lovers. Edward’s Queen, Isabella (Tilda Swinton), and the head of his army, Lord Mortimer (Nigel Terry), can stand neither Gaveston nor Edward’s raucous, hedonistic, carefree lifestyle. And so a plot is formed, first against Gaveston and then against the King himself.
One way Jarman does remain true to the era in which the events actually took place (the early 1300s) is in the way that Edward and the court’s surroundings don’t seem especially comfortable. Edward may have lived in a castle but luxuries like heating, cooling, electricity and indoor plumbing didn’t exist yet. And so, probably accurately, Edward II unfolds in mostly spare stone and earthen spaces with narrow strips of harsh light surrounded by deep, black shadows.
On the other hand, Jarman emphasizes the contemporary when it comes to Edward and Galveston’s sexuality. When Swinton locates the word “queer” in Marlowe’s text, she hits it hard, making plain what the author likely intended as subtext. And when the English people rise up in protest, they do so as members of Outrage, a real life AIDS activist organization, analogous to Act Up here in the States. Edward II is a fierce and passionate work of art, as timeless as it is of its time.
Light density is key to Edward II and Film Movement’s transfer offers it up beautifully. In such wide open sets, the interplay of light and shadow adds dimension. The Blu-ray is terrifically crisp in this respect. The audio is in stereo.
Special features include a short documentary called “Derek’s Edward” and an essay by filmmaker Bruce LaBruce.