Its 1990, Margaret Thatcher was on her way down, but the Tories were still strangling Britain as well as the human rights of gays and lesbians throughout the land. Visionary director Derek Jarman, who was living with AIDS at the time, was given the opportunity to adapt Christopher Marlowe‘s dusty old 16th-play Edward II, about the British king whose open affair with his lover Piers Gaveston led to his murder, orchestrated by his wife, Queen Isabella of France, and her lover, Roger Mortimer.
To be queer in cinema in the 1990s was almost impossible as this was a period when gays were being demonised as carriers of a deadly plague. So it was with guts and determination that Jarman made this grim 16th-century drama, and dedicated it the repeal of all anti-gay laws. No longer would queer love be the love that dare not speak its name.
Due to funding being pulled at the last minute, only four sets were built for the film, which was shot at Bray studios, once the home of Hammer. But with ingenious use of lighting and terrific performances (Steven Waddington plays the king like a tough cagefighter, while Tilda Swinton is the ice queen personified), Jarman’s tinkering of Marlowe’s original text comes into its own. The minimalism here really pays off, and the sexual imagery makes this ‘more an Elizabethan lay than an Elizabethan play’ to quote Jarman himself.
With Edward II, Jarman wanted to lock the closet key firmly on the Tories. Using anachronistic imagery – modern dress (the military wear 1950s fatigues, while Swinton’s queen is dressed like Princess Grace complete with Hermes handbag), real-life gay activists battling riot police, and Annie Lennox singing Cole Porter – he parallels the injustice to the King with the prevailing homophobia of the day.
Today, Edward II, which gets a remastered Second Sight DVD release, remains a powerful testament to Jarman’s artistry. It also makes you aware just how far the rights of gays and lesbian have progressed in the past 19 years, helped greatly by Jarman and visionary activists like him.
Released 1 March