Praise be to the whoever greenlit the pitch ‘Elizabethan tragedy as gay parable.’ Whatever gay subtext was in Marlowe’s original, Derek Jarman makes text. Jarman is no purist, and has no intention of pandering to them. He does not attempt to produce Edward II, per se. He fashions an anti-bigotry parable from the material of Edward II.
Something’s rotten in the state of England. To the court, it’s buggery; to the audience, it’s bigotry. King Edward II has a favourite, Gaveston, who is more than a favourite. He showers honours, titles, and privileges upon his boyfriend, to the court’s chagrin. The court aims to exile Gaveston, or, failing that, murder him. Will Edward crush this bigotry, or will it crush him?
Jarman doesn’t fuck around with subtext. In one of the first scenes, Edward and Gaveston talk on a bed, while two men make out behind them. Further, Jarman leaves the erotic nature of Edward and Gaveston’s relationship in no doubt. Jarman bends this 16th-century text into an explicitly queer parable.
Unfortunately, Jarman’s bluntness becomes parodic at times, exceeding the limits of irony and camp. At one point, modern gay rights protesters, placards and all, harangue the court’s guards. This is a step too far here. The film already has anachronisms, so that’s not the issue. (Though ‘anacrhonism’ is not the right term, as there is no definite period.) My issue is that the protesters shatter the film’s grungy Gothic aesthetic. The main cast don’t wear period clothes, but they feel of a piece, a piece which the protestors are not of. Verbally, the protestors also clash. In a play written in versified Early Modern English, the terse rhymes of modern day gay rights slogans don’t really fit. Perhaps Jarman intended Brechtian alienation; by shattering aesthetic consistency he breaks the willing suspension of disbelief, thus, as the emotions and thrill of the piece no longer distracts the audience, they can consider the film critically. If that was the intention, Jarman falters. It is possible to make your audience take a step back without sacrificing the film’s aesthetic. Take Brecht’s Threepenny Opera for example. Brecht wanted no quasi-natural escalation into song. He had his actors talk, then break into singing as a spotlight came on. This jars the audience and reminds them they watch a musical, rather than life. But the songs do not break the grunginess of the speaking sections, they further it.
That is not to say all the film’s excess fails. Jarman understands how to use camp, that is, knowing excess, effectively. When the court exiles Gaveston, a woman sings Cole Porter’s Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye. At first, this goodbye song is merely schmaltzy. Then we see the singer, Edward’s wife Queen Isabella. She sings not of the men, but herself. Seeing how much Edward loves Gaveston, she knows exiling Gaveston won’t open room in Edward’s heart. She sings her hopes for Edward’s love goodbye.
Credit to Jarman, he does not make this film a soapbox. A different film with an anti-bigotry viewpoint might show Edward and Gaveston as only sinned against, never sinning. While Jarman does not treat both sides equally (A good thing, as both sides are not equal), he gives both sides their due. Edward shows favouritism to Gaveston, elevating Gaveston beyond his birth and merit. The court believes Edward lets his lust misguide his Kingship.
From this kernel of justification, homophobia amplifies the court’s hatred. The hypocrisy of Edward’s usurper, Mortimer, reveals this kernel as a pretence. If nepotism is Edward’s crime, it is Mortimer’s as well. When Mortimer takes the throne, he boasts how he will raise up his friends. Nepotism is undesirable, but it’s how you play the game. That the court takes especial issue with Edward’s nepotism suggests they would excuse his nepotism, were Gaveston a woman.
‘Perversion’ is a slur thrown at homosexuality. But if perversion is a crime, Mortimer exceeds Edward. Besides his adulterous relationship with Edward’s Queen, multiple times the audience sees him in sadomasochistic orgies. Heterosexual orgies, of course – but that’s the point. Perversion (or rather, sexual lives outside the norm) are excused, so long as they’re heterosexual.
Despite being a film about institutionalised homophobia, Edward II ends hopefully. Where in the play and history an executioner kills Edward, here that event is but a nightmare. When Edward awakes, his executioner throws down his arms, and the two kiss. As far as the audience knows, they survive.
Edward’s child, the future Edward III, foreshadows a fairer future. Towards the end, the child wears makeup, and earrings, and heels. He stands atop a cage imprisoning Mortimer and Isabelle, the usurping bigots. The symbolism is obvious: the homophobes are thwarted, and the next, a freer generation waits to take the stage. While a male adopting feminine dress does not guarantee homosexuality, young Edward’s transgression of gender norms implies that, as King, he will fight this institutionalised bigotry. Today (circa 1991) the world may spit on, beat, and kill homosexuals, but the next generation will live without this horror, the film hopes.