In Jarman's 'Edward II,' the Emperor Has No Closets


Edward II

directed by Derek Jarman

at the Brattle Theatre

on December 2

Derek Jarman's ostensibly hip 1992 rendering of Christopher Marlowe's classic play is a fine example of how one can choke on one's own postmodernism. You won't be allowed to forget that the play was written centuries ago, but its timeliness (gay love, violently thwarted) will be thrust rudely at you like a piece of ACT-UP literature: fine if you're a piece of ACT-UP literature, but not necessarily if you're a Christopher Marlowe play. But first, the Cliff Notes. Edward II has a particular affection for a commoner named Gaveston, and makes him his companion, much to the chagrin of his queen Isabella, his brother, his court, and his kingdom in general. With the ambitious militarist Mortimer, Isabella jealously plots Gaveston's banishment and eventual murder. Edward II winds up imprisoned and miserable, failed in his capacities as ruler and husband and deprived of the one human being he ever loved. Passion. Violence. Doom.

There's plenty of interest here, but Derek Jarman's version does away with most of it almost from the first. The problem: the homoeroticism that is suggested by Marlowe's play is here sketched immediately in broad, unambiguous, 1990s strokes, upstaging the play's own subtleties of language. The filmmakers, clearly delighted with the possibilities of anachronistic dress, sets, and props, can't stop sprinkling them on, even when they're pointless and distracting. Like the abrupt cuts from scene to scene, these anachronisms are jarring and seem altogether a little too precious: a toy robot is set adrift, a bunch of sneakered men are directed in sit-ups by a man in a hooded sweatshirt, and the courtiers at the meeting where Gaveston's exile is discussed are dressed as a bunch of IBM executives. In one mob scene a group of demonstrators wield placards that read "Gay desire is not a crime!" One wonders why they didn't go the whole nine yards and have such things plastered in boldface on Edward and Gaveston's t-shirts.

There is also a cramped, dark, relentlessly gloomy feeling to the settings, confined to stone courtyards and chambers: sparsely furnished for a king, except for a throne, a swimming pool, and plenty of beds. It's the kind of angst-ridden starkness that might be intended to impute Beckett-like solemnity to the proceedings, but the effect in this case was rather one of being stuck in a prolonged Calvin Klein perfume ad. This may have something to do with how good the actors look, and what they are wearing. Jarman's homosexual lovers have strong jaws and wellcut hair. I spent some futile time trying to remember whether I'd seen Gaveston (Andrew Tienan) in "St. Elmo's Fire."

Nigel Terry's Mortimer walks around in one scene wearing a leopard-print dressing gown that looks like Isabella ordered it for him at Victoria's Secret along with her cyan satin lingerie, which does nothing to excite her disinterested husband. When she isn't dressed in such sweet nothings, Isabella minces around in one confining Chanel-type outfit after another (there's one striking scene when she literally drips with pearls). But as in "The Age of Innocence," the clothes in "Edward II"--and their occasional removal--are invested with too much responsibility. And where do they keep these fabulous things? Edward's castle doesn't have any closets, either.

You may wonder about Annie Lennox. At one point, the pop diva (incomprehensibly top-billed) appears from behind a pillar, only to wail a version of Cole Porter's "Everytime We Say Goodbye" as the two lovers caress and cavort around sadly, if such a thing is possible. There are several such pointless dance sequences (sans Lennox), which look as if they might have been choreographed by Janet Jackson. Aside from the sitar music with which "Edward II" opens, the MTV analogue, like that of the perfume ad, is impossible to avoid. All you "campsters" out there might be getting a bit excited. But hold onto your tunics, boys and girls. The movie is not self-conscious enough to know itself as "camp," nor unself-conscious enough to be a pleasant "camp" experience for the wily viewer. Tant pis.