October 30th, 2012

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Derek Jarman's Edward II, Somerset House, Inside Out Festival

Edward II
Gaveston squatting on Edward's throne
Steven Waddington as Edward II and Andrew Tiernan as Piers Gaveston
Photo credit: http://www.gaydarradio.com/entertainment/reviews/2010/3/DVD-Edward-II-26299.html

I saw this last Thursday (25 October) at Somerset House as part of the Inside Out Festival.

Cut and pasted from the Inside Out Festival Website:

Derek Jarman’s Edward II is a postmodern take on the life of the medieval monarch, based on Christopher Marlowe’s play. The backdrop for Jarman’s film is the introduction of Section 28 (the law against “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities) and the film shows Edward lead the attack against his queen with an army of gay-rights protestors.

This screening will reconsider the film in the context of the current debates around queer history and LGBT rights. One reason for the timeliness of this event is the current debate around the legalisation of gay marriage: as clerics and conservatives evoke ideas of the ‘sanctity’ and ‘history’ of marriage, we will ask what looking at histories of sexuality can really tell us about the present.

Jarman’s film proposes a queer look at history. This challenges both our understanding of the past as possible to film and narrate, and received ideas of heterosexuality and marriage as traditional, historic institutions.

Looking at queers in the past, and looking at the past queerly, this screening will open up new frames for the debate about sexuality in the past, and about how we should see it into the future.

Follow the link for all the details:

You can buy the DVD on Amazon here:

Raks's Reaction

This is a film that I have wanted to see for a very long time, pretty much from when it was originally released in 1991. I finally got a chance to see it last Thursday. It was a privilege to see the film with an audience on a big screen.

What I have written below is not so much a film review but a series of reactions to aspects of the film.

"This Edward is the ruin of our Realm"

The first question is, given this film is now over 20 years old, does it stand the test of time, is it still relevant, can it speak to us today? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding YES!

The Judas Kiss is still fresh in my mind. In both stories, the central protagonist, Wilde in The Judas Kiss, and Edward in Edward II, is prepared to give up/sacrifice everything for their respective lovers, Bosie in Wilde's case and Gaveston in Edward's case. For the plays to work, you have to believe that. For me, that really worked in this film. Andrew Tiernan, playing Piers Gaveston, had a charisma, a magnetism, a presence, that made you see why Edward would be prepared to risk everything for him. If you walked into a room you would be drawn to him, like a moth to a flame. Tiernan for me was completely mesmerising. After the screening, audience members spoke about the unease that he made them feel, his malevolence. I am not denying that. But dark characters can be appealing and attractive and what I am saying is that Tiernan had a magnetic quality that made you understand his appeal and the hold that he had on Edward.

One image that will stay with me. Gaveston is banished and has to leave; he walks down, a line of priests stood either side of him. As he walks down the line, they all spit at him. This was a very powerful image of the rejection of Gaveston by the establishment and the hierarchy, and I also felt Gaveston's dejection and pain at being shunned by society and treated in this way. To me, it was a very powerful portrayal of how the establishment can sometimes treat minorities, how cruel they can be, and how brutally that power can be yielded. This started the process of BANISHMENT, which in those times, as it is in many of Shakespeare's plays, is when society completely rejects you and throws you out, and you are cast out into the wilderness, cold, isolated and alone.

For me, the villain of this piece is Edward's Queen, Isabella, played by Tilda Swinton. She is cold, icy, aloof, and wicked. In her portrayal of Isabella here, I saw the makings of the White Witch that she later played in the Chronicles of Narnia. For me, Isabella had no scrap of humanity to her, no warmth, no love, she was the ultimate Ice Queen.

This film reflects back on the 80s. The Police and the Army, the agents of state control, are very much the enemy, the villains of the piece. This is of its time. In terms of the miners' strike, urban riots, and other disturbances in the 80s, the police were seen as Thatcher's agents and so the film reflects that view. This is not the way that I view the police, but I know that the police are still viewed with suspicion and distrust, and even hatred, in some minority communities right through to the present day. Regardless, the depiction of the police in all their riot gear was a realistic and true representation of the encounters that minority communities were having with the police at this time.

The setting, what appeared to be an old medieval castle, was perfect for this piece. It was exactly the type of place where you could become very paranoid, a place of many corridors and secret passages, where there are many places for whispers, and for treachery and treason to flourish.

The image above conveys a lot. Gaveston, the evil commoner, squatting on Edward's throne. Gaveston usurping Edward's rightful place on the throne. The power behind the throne.

Overall, in summary, I really enjoyed the film and I would be happy to recommend it. It has plenty to say even 20 years on and I would argue it is as relevant today as it was when Jarman made it and when Marlowe wrote it.

Peter Tatchell comments

There was a Q&A following the screening and Peter Tatchell was on the panel. Peter made the following points which struck me:

- Derek Jarman was a prominent and active member of the gay rights group Outrage
- All the activists in the film were real members of Outrage (including Peter!), holding real banners and placards that they had used on real protests, who had been bussed in especially
- Jarman was a political filmmaker; he made his films to make political statements and convey political messages (Raks's comment - I wish more people did that now!)
- Whilst the play was published in the 1590s, and is set in the medieval period, the historical narrative is used by Jarman to make contemporary political points
- The film reflects back on the 1980s, a time of Thatcher, HIV/AIDs, and the notorious Section 28; the climate in Britain at the time was very anti-gay
- Homophobic attacks and murders were being committed, but the police seemed more intent on entrapping gay men in public lavatories than investigating homophobic hate crime
- The film shines a light on the homophobia rife within both State and Church at the time the film was made.

To finish,

Taken from the published screenplay written by Derek Jarman:

Queer Edward II
How to make a film of a gay love affair and get it commissioned. Find a dusty old play and violate it.
This book is dedicated to the repeal of all anti-gay laws, particularly Section 28