“EDWARD II”— A Radical but Honest Adaptation

“Edward II”

A Radical But Honest Adaptation

Amos Lassen

I am sure that some of you have seen Derek Jarman’s adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s notorious 16th century play, “EDWARD II”, however, I am pretty sure than none of you have see this beautiful Film Movement remastered version of the film. This is one of Jarman’s most powerful and popular films in which Jarman used his own conventions; anachronistic imagery, modern dress, gay activists battling riot police and Annie Lennox singing Cole Porter. This is the story of Britain’s only openly gay monarch and the persecution that he suffered and Derek Jarman gives it contemporary resonance and relevance by paralleling the injustice with prevailing modern-day homophobia. King Edward II (Stephen Waddington) rejects his cold wife Queen Isabella (Tilda Swinton) and takes a male lover, the commoner Piers Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan) upon whom he grants gifts and power. The court is outraged by the king’s behavior and the queen becomes a g monster whose dresses and jewelry grow more outrageously lavish as her need for vengeance escalates and plotting against the king begins.

Jarman’s “Edward II” is one of the best examples of the “New Queer Cinema” movement of the early 90s. Jarman took Christopher Marlowe’s original play and turned it into a homoerotic, sexually charged, radically relevant work and keeps the play’s power. He blends Marlowe’s prose with contemporary jargon and costumes with positive portrayals of queer sex, profanity and ACT- UP activism. Film Movement has newly restored the film and it is a feast for the eyes and the ears.

“Edward II” reaches back to the past to a play that Christopher Marlowe wrote in 1592 and uses it to illuminate the present and the director’s own homosexuality. Jarman took anachronistic liberties Marlowe to expose contemporary gay bashing and gives us a film filled with “fury, sexuality and radical wit.” I got the feeling that the reason Jarman actually made this movement was to move the audience from complacency by shocking them.

After the death of his father death, Edward II (Steve Waddington) infuriates his barons and his French queen, Isabella (Tilda Swinton), by sending for his lover Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan). Edward and Gaveston talk while two naked men tangle erotically in the background and Annie Lennox serenades the lovers with a Cole Porter ballad. Swinton’s Isabella is elegant and a sexy and becomes a gun-toting, bloodsucking vampire after losing her husband’s affections. But the film is much more than an arresting piece of cinema; it is a cry from the heart. Jarman brings the antique play and its themes into the modern age but I have no doubt that purists will object to the modern costumes and settings and the gay sex and politics. Jarman adds a gay sex scene and shows Edward’s army as gay rights protesters.

The film is dark, uncomfortable, adult and sometimes violent filmmaking it not easy to watch. But that honors the play too. Tilda Swinton as Isabella and Nigel Terry as Mortimer give absolutely brilliant performances as the and easily outclass the other actors.

“Edward II” was made a few years before Jarman died of AIDS and the dark mood of the film plays as an angry cry about Margaret Thatcher and the ongoing repressive and homophobic nature of the British government by pulling out what is relevant from Marlowe to modern times. It’s played in sparse sets with blank walls and dirt floors, and the cast dressed in modern costumes to reflect in a Brechtian way the role of class-consciousness. The film has a rawness and power of purpose that is gripping. Jarman shows not only the brightness of his protagonists but also their dark side.

The film is meant to shock and does indeed do so.

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