Derek Jarman's 'Edward II' rages against society's fear

May 08, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

It can be said of Derek Jarman that he is not going gentle into that bad night. Jarman, the world's only self-acknowledged HIV-positive film director, has turned his fury, his sense of betrayal and his sense of violation to vivid use in a number of films, and his newest, "Edward II," is a scorcher.

The movie opens today at the Charles; it is not pleasant but it is not forgettable, either.

Roughly based on the Christopher Marlowe play that chronicled the life and grotesque death of England's only known gay king, it's hardly "Masterpiece Theater" -- that is, it's not a tidy, tasteful, costume-rich and irony-acute re-creation of the past. Jarman's best trick is to yank the materials rudely into our century and turn Edward's death into a metaphor for society's contempt and fear of homosexuality.

For the record, Edward ascended to the throne in 1307. He was, as the Columbia Desk Encyclopedia discreetly puts it, "dissolute," and his first official act of state was to recall from exile his banished friend Piers Gaveston and begin to lavish gifts, titles, powers and affections upon the young man. Naturally, this irritated a number of powerful people.

Edward's reign lasted 20 rambunctious years. Halfway thorough it, Gaveston was murdered; moreover, the sovereign was always in trouble with this or that cabal of powerful enemies (including Edward's wife Isabella of France) conspiring against him; they got him in 1327, but more of the same discretion the Encyclopedia insists upon (but Jarman does not) prevents me from explaining the mechanism of his murder. Marlowe's great play was written nearly 300 years later in 1592, the year before his own murder at the age of 29.

Naturally, Jarman crams the two turbulent decades into what appears to be a single long evening. The setting is the never-never land of modern drama, a kind of neither-here-nor-there zone of gloomy stone walls, corridors leading nowhere, dirt floors, towering empty spaces. It's a place, furthermore, that can accommodate both swords and M-16s, men in codpieces and combat boots, demonstrators with HOMOSEXUAL DESIRE IS NOT SIN placards and ladies-in-waiting.

Edward (Steven Waddington) and Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan) are played as arrogant teddy boys who flaunt their homosexuality to provoke the squares who gaze in horror at it. They are militantly gay, gay and proud, gay all the way.

In some respects, the movie seems composed less from Marlowe but from what might be called the homosexual sensibility: The mad mixture of Elizabethan English and modern profanity recalls Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho," some of the sado-masochistic practices alluded to seem out of Robert Mapplethorpe's exquisite but demented photographs, and the lush pictorials recall also the stylings of Peter Greenaway.

Yet the movie is of a piece; unlike Greenaway or Mapplethorpe, Jarman is a storyteller as well as an advocate and a design maven. The movie has a rushing sense of narrative; it fairly leaps through the material, pulling one along. It's powerful stuff.

'Edward II'

Starring Steven Waddington and Andrew Tiernan.

Directed by Derek Jarman.

Released by Fine Line.

Rated R.

***

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