Radical Queerness in the Age of Thatcher: The Films of Derek Jarman

Originally published on FilmStruck

It is a popular refrain of reactionary governments that a true nationalist spirit can only be attained at the expense of the marginalized. One sees it today in the anti-migrant hysteria of America and Europe’s far-right extremists, and one saw it during the 1980s, under the Thatcher and Reagan administrations, which notoriously carried on as if homosexuality was at best a nuisance, and at worse a plague upon society – one recalls that the AIDS epidemic was treated as so much grist for the stigmatization of the gay community rather than a humanitarian crisis in need of serious redress. Thatcher’s resolute antipathy toward gay people – legislatively embodied by Section 28 of the Local Government Act of 1988 – was legitimized by the forever specious notion that vaunted national traditions – those perennial abstractions – can only be safeguarded by the quelling of groups deemed ‘aberrant’ by the powers that be.

There is no greater threat to this hollow rhetoric of traditionalism than a filmmaker like Derek Jarman, a self-made multidisciplinary artist with a rich steeping in those canonical works which comprise Britain’s cultural legacy, and who filtrated this heritage through a lens of radical queerness. Unlike the work of his contemporary Terence Davies – who sought to reconcile his queerness to the Catholic Liverpool of his childhood via a prostrate lyricism – Jarman is a filmmaker of punk idiosyncrasies, experimental proclivities, and a battering-ram anger that perceptibly boiled over as the Thatcher government’s state-sanctioned homophobia grew increasingly entrenched.

FilmStruck, as part of its Pride Month programming, has made available the key feature films in Jarman’s incendiary body of work, and it has been a rush to finally acquaint myself with such a singularly diversified filmography. For all of the films’ prodigious eclecticism, Jarman tends to anchor them within a politically charged inlet of his imagination. Even works like THE TEMPEST (’79) and WAR REQUIEM (’89) – paragons of spiritual fidelity to classically resonant sources (Shakespeare on the one hand and Benjamin Britten’s 1963 oratorio on the other) – achieve an iconoclastic vitality in their vexatiously sought images.

But it is the works that are most charged with bareknuckle fury that most capture my attention. These are movies largely made after Jarman was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1986, and they are remarkable for ringing with honest-to-god anger at the condition of being a gay man under one of Britain’s most recently repressive regimes, without ever betraying the artistic equipoise of their maker. THE LAST OF ENGLAND (’87), for example, is a wail of unmatched anguish that suggests – through a violent bombardment of Super-8 footage that flitters in flurries of brackish color-tinting – that the blame for Britain’s cultural decline lies at the feet of Thatcher’s cold-blooded governance. As if in full-throttled rebuke to the administration’s feigned reverence for British tradition, Jarman marshals together a panoply of referential ambassadors of the Western Canon to aid him in his assault (the title, for starters, is taken from an 1855 painting by Ford Madox Brown, which depicts the emigration by sea of an English couple bound for Australia).

But no Jarman film digs its talons quite into Britain’s perilous zeitgeist quite like EDWARD II (’91), a brooding chamber piece adapted from the Christopher Marlowe play, which transplants the action to an England of grayscale abstractions. In Jarman’s imagining of the material, the love of King Edward (Steven Waddington) for his friend Piers Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan) is a source of supreme consternation for the Tories, the clergy, and the nation’s military brass, all of whom strive to depose their libidinous ruler and, in the process, return England to a land of straight and straight-laced suppression. Hence Tilda Swinton, as Queen Isabella, comes to channel Margaret Thatcher, and makes acrid and ironical use of many of the play’s most piquant lines (“Is it not queer that he is this bewitched?”). There is no mistaking Jarman’s purpose in intercutting Isabella’s public address as to England’s nationalist restoration (“That England’s queen in peace may repossess / Her dignities and honours”) with the brutal quashing of a fervent gay rights protest by armed guards.

And of course, there is BLUE (’93), the filmmaker’s pained swansong. Here, Jarman’s mental and material vulnerability in his final days, before his death by AIDS-related complications, is rendered as calm but unguarded oratory – in tandem with a fastidious and evocative soundtrack – against a static blue background. Any trepidation that such a work is too difficult – a piece of stunt cinema, frivolously avant-garde – withers upon experiencing the palpable intimacy of Jarman’s poetical soundscapes, and upon absorbing how plangently they are mediated by a single slate of opaque monochrome. It is, like every Jarman film I was privileged to experience in preparation for this piece, a remarkable work, among the upper echelons of personal cinema.

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