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‘Edward II’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 13, 1992


Derek Jarman
Steven Waddington;
Andrew Tiernan;
Tilda Swinton;
Nigel Terry
sexual content

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"Edward II," Derek Jarman's phantasmagoric, outrageously stylized interpretation of the Christopher Marlowe play, is more a creature of its director's sensibility than its creator's.

In its settings (mostly bare walls and dirt floors) and its wardrobe (characters wear contemporary, mostly black fashions) and countless other anachronisms, the film presents an out-of-time, theatrical sense of history. Faithfulness to either period or text has been abandoned in favor of a politicized, revisionist version of the play's events in which Marlowe's buried subtext -- in particular, the sexual proclivities of his principal characters -- becomes the main text. And, in the process, Jarman's soapbox.

Jarman, the British director who suffers from AIDS and whose past work ("Caravaggio" and "Sebastiane," among others) has dealt openly with gay themes, has found in Edward a martyred hero, a victim of repression and injustice whose obsessional passion for another man, the despised Gaveston, leads to his overthrow and savage murder. Regardless of whether his view of the material matches up with history, Jarman hasn't tortured his source to fit his agenda. Instead, he's found support for his themes within the text.

That doesn't mean that his departures aren't radical. In his hands, "Edward II" has become a chic melodrama that's part art object, part "The Valley of the Dolls." The king (Steven Waddington) and Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan) parade around with their followers at their heels like a surly street gang spoiling for a fight. They're young toughs, the classical equivalent of skinheads, who outrage the establishment with their lewd behavior and disrespect for authority. The earls and barons, who are appalled by the power Edward has bestowed on Gaveston, are portrayed as corporate board members, bland bureaucrats in three-piece suits. They want the base Gaveston gone, one way or another.

Jarman's directorial choices are always a surprise, and sometimes strikingly so, even if he reduces the play to the level of "we don't like your boyfriend." His decision to have Annie Lennox serenade the departing Gaveston and his lover with a rendition of Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye" is a brilliant stroke; it's Marlowe meets MTV. And his idea of casting Edward's queen, Isabella (the beautifully mannequin-like Tilda Swinton), as a medieval Imelda Marcos, sublimating her sexual frustrations with ever more lavish Hermes gowns, is outrageously appropriate.

Jarman's political activism is at times shoved vividly into the foreground -- for example, when he has members of England's real-life gay rights group OutRage protest the repression of homosexuals in picket lines outside the castle. The director's flagrant celebration of gay love isn't an advertisement, nor is the presentation of his homosexual characters always benign. Though sometimes unflattering, sometimes galling, they are gay images fashioned by an engaged, inventive artist who is less interested in what's politically fashionable than in what's true to himself.

"Edward II" is rated R for sexual content.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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