The Brutal Politics of Desire: Derek Jarman's Edward II

Joonna S. Trapp


Although Derek Jarman has been criticized for claiming to improve Marlowe's play (Horger, 1993), most of his critics recognize his film adaptation of Edward II as a "strangely respectful, as well as a predictably weird" use of the play (Spufford, 1991). Much discussion has centered on the rather obvious political message of the film, but that message is only a small part of Jarman's larger aesthetic achievement. Even though Edward II is his most "commercial production" (Stratton, 1991), Jarman's still evident experimental style reaches into the very thematic heart of Marlowe's play, offering his viewers a contemporary re-interpretation of the clash between the public and private lives of powerful individuals. He also brings a fresh and sometimes shocking re-imagining of the relationship between sex and power. Brian McFarlane says that "it is the intense politicization of the sexual drama that makes Jarman's film a genuine adaptation of Marlowe" (1992: 35). But Jarman's film is not for the queasy. The violence, whether implied or explicit, is brutal and swift, culminating in the horrific rape/murder of the deposed Edward. In addition, the sexual content is often bizarre and unexpected, ranging from a sadomasochistic menage a trois to a rugby scrum in the nude. The sex and violence found in the film become the dual, vicious arms of autocratic power.

In Edward II, Jarman's budget limited him to one set and only few furnishings, but for Jarman, this resulted in aesthetic innovation: Edward II creates a world of the mind. Seen through the fractured memories of a weary, beaten, disposed monarch, the world is not coherent, not sane, and not linear and exists as a reflection of Edward's society, which has been undergoing rapid upheavals. A king is jailed, battles are fought, and representatives of church and state are slaughtered - the world has lost its center and exists only in episodic chaos.

Even in the one outdoor scene in which Gaveston is thrust into the wilds of a storm, the set is the same small enclosed place. In this shot, the exterior world feels tight; the viewer feels boxed-in as the howling Gaveston squats on his toes while the sky presses down upon him with the force of the driving rain. In addition, the confinement of the "castle" where most of the action occurs appears to be a sort of labyrinth of halls, throne rooms, dungeons, war rooms, entertainment arenas, bed chambers, and torture chambers. The look of all the shots happens on screen through the innovative use of camera angle, specially designed ramps, lighting, and well-executed acting. The shafts of light that penetrate the darkness contribute to the cutting nature of this alienated world. The viewer has no sense of the outside world beyond the castle. A dark, hopeless world of mud floors and cold stone walls, Edward's realm is neither protected nor adorned, and is frequently populated by thugs. The interior landscape is rigid, static, and claustrophobic, representing the inside world of the political realm with its stiff, unfeeling rules about class and behavior. As Jarman explains, "The set became a metaphor of the trapped country, the prison of our lives, 'the closet of our heart,' in Edward's words" (Qtd. O'Pray, 1991: 11).

The static mise en scene produces a heightened sense of theatricality. The characters of the film become mere actors playing a part in service of their own petty needs. Within this political theater, Jarman, respected as a painter as well as a filmmaker, frames each shot carefully, as if each were a painting. A particularly impressive example is the scene of Isabella as chairman of the board. She sits regally as the nobles applaud Mortimer's suggestion to recall Gaveston and end his life. The table is dark, as is the room; we are not sure of her presence until a noble asks why the death of Gaveston had not already been ordered. Mortimer replies that it had not been thought of before. At that point he looks to the other end of the table. The scene is cut to a perfectly composed Isabella sitting quietly with hands folded on the table and her chin high. To the viewer, she appears to be object of Mortimer's glance, suggesting that the plan to kill Gaveston was her idea. Jarman wanted her to look like Joan Crawford playing the powerful chairman of a large company like Pepsi Cola (O'Pray, 1991: 10). In this instance, as in many others, Jarman's well-framed mise en scene manages to propel the story forward while avoiding the appearance of photographic realism. The bizarre world resulting from these devices invites the viewer into a near experience with alienation and discrimination. Like his extreme screen world, discrimination twists and alters reality into a bizarre existence for those who are the victims.

Jarman also uses the physical work of the actors as a part of the mise en scene. An admirer of Carl Theodore Dreyer's use of many simply framed close ups of the face, Jarman uses the "geography of the face" (Dreyer, 1955-56:129) to illuminate the inner world of the film. As the camera moves in for a close up of Edward's face, the viewer becomes privileged to the confidential world of the King's innermost thoughts. We see his very earnest joy at the sight of Gaveston, his disgust with Isabella, and the psychic torture he endures in prison. Gaveston's curled lips betray his scorn for those around him. The thugs assisting in the beating of the bishop show their delight through their evil smiles. Mortimer's stone face cracks when the Queen kisses him. Later, his usually taunt mouth betrays the slightest twinge of horror at the violent death of Kent. But it is Isabella's face, smooth and unmoving, which, oddly enough, most displays her inner self - the "smoldering prison of the mind" (Buchman, 1991: 70). No matter what she suffers or how poorly she is used by the King, her face masks the seething emotions raging beneath the surface. When Gaveston corners her during a concert and pretends to kiss her, she almost lets go. But as he laughs derisively at her folly, the stone face returns - her shame reflected in her eyes. Especially in Isabella's case, the close up functions in the film as the soliloquy does onstage - to give voice to the internal dynamics of thought and emotion.

Another vital component of the physical work of the actors is in positioning and gesturing. The sign of position or of gesture can "resonate with the dynamic of social relations that inform it" (Buchman, 1991: 80). When Gaveston enters the court, he walks up a ramp to the throne where the anxious Edward awaits. The King motions for Gaveston to sit on the throne in his place. The King then kisses Gaveston's hand in the position of servitude. The whole matter of who is sitting on the throne and who is in power is put into question by this positioning and re-positioning. After a gala regal event, Mortimer and Isabella both fall onto the throne, laughing, while Isabella waves her arm around in a mock queenly acknowledgement of the cheers of the crowd. Their positioning suggests a joint ownership and rule of the kingdom.

All of these devices demonstrate the interplay of sex and power, private and public. When Gaveston receives his recall letter from Edward near the beginning of the film, he rejects the two naked "hustlers," as Jarman calls them in the film book, who are making love "without a blush," by paying them off with a wad of money. The love of the King of England means more to Gaveston than simple sexual gratification - it means a farewell to "base stooping to the lordly peers" (1991: 10). For Gaveston, the desire for power and sex are ultimately tied together. In fact, Jarman has said that he liked the character of Gaveston because he was "sexuality and class merged" (Qtd. O'Pray, 1991). The bonding of political aspiration and sexuality is further reinforced in an imagined scene of "such things" to "best please his majesty" (1991: 14). Gaveston imagines a massive young man crowned with golden leaves and with golden fig leaves attached to his jock strap - very Roman looking. The young man, exuding both power and sexuality, handles a huge python. While the snake engages in his deadly-looking caresses of the man, the man kisses the snake. The intertwining bodies of the snake and handler become a stunning metaphor for the relationship of power and sexuality that will advance Gaveston and please Edward.

The torture scenes in the film further intertwine the ideas of sexuality and the assertion of power. In the scene of the torture of the bishop by the four thugs and Gaveston, the bishop appears battered and beaten by permission of Edward (authorized during Gaveston's bedroom tantrum). What complicates the scene is the way it combines the childish taunts and horrific battering with the mock rape of the bishop. Stripping him of his robes of power and pummelling him until bloody are not enough. The mock sodomizing completes the degradation and affirms visually that the church has no control over either of Gaveston's aspirations.

Both kinds of torture also appear in the execution of the captive policeman guilty of killing Gaveston. The policeman, a representative of the state, was originally supposed to have been "crucified on sides of beef" while naked (Jarman, 1991: 128). In the film, however, the man is clothed in his uniform, but Edward undoes the man's belt and loosens his pants in order to get a clear striking path for the butcher's knife. The executioners, dressed in butcher's aprons, and the man hanging on a side of beef, represent the value the man has at the moment. He is stripped of parts of his uniform, symbols of his power authorized by the state, and made of no more importance than a piece of meat, an image which carries implicit sexual innuendo in modern vernacular.

When Mortimer brutally beats and kills Spencer, the scene cuts several times to Edward languishing in his dungeon, almost giving the impression that Edward can hear the noises of the torture. Contributing to the unpleasantness is the enjoyment Mortimer wears on his face as he brutalizes his victim. Mortimer stands erect in a close fitting T-shirt that exposes the definition of his muscles. Spencer, hunched and clothed in a loose, filthy shirt, looks totally helpless and weak. At the moment of Spencer's death, Mortimer spits out the improvised line, "Girlboy." He enjoys not only the destruction of a possible threat to his own status and aspirations in the kingdom by killing the king's favorite - he relishes the destruction of a sexual threat to his own "manhood" as well. Mortimer uses sex, with the Queen and with the two wild girls, only as a part of a power struggle. He cannot understand Edward, who completely separates his sexual partners from his position in the kingdom, finding his lovers in the socially inappropriate Gaveston and Spencer. Edward, Gaveston, and Spencer violate Mortimer's notions of manhood, sexual power, and political power.

Another torture scene actually occurs in flashes throughout the entire movie. The film opens with Edward suffering in a filthy dungeon, thinking about his recalling of Gaveston. In his hand is a postcard of London, which Lightborn takes away from him, symbolically removing his power over the realm. He suffers the indignities of jail, deep in the cesspool of the filth of the castle, alone except for the attentions of his jailer. There Edward is deprived of all the rights of being king and all the powers which come with that position. The filth of the dungeon reflects "the condition of the country overflowing with blood and gore" (Haber, 1994: 180). Edward weeps and looks haunted. The whole movie is set, as it were, in scenes of flashbacks as remembered or invented by the dethroned King. Toward the end of the film, Edward dreams of his execution, or at least the one planned for him. In a "hellish" red glow within the bowels of the dungeon, four jailers force Edward to lie on his stomach over a table. We can hear no sounds of struggle or anything at all except a lovely, upbeat, a cappella hymn sung by a boyschorus. The jailers are clearly enjoying the prospect of torturing the King, as is Lightborn as he picks up the white-hot poker. The choir stops singing as the King's screams burst upon the viewer. Although we do not see the actual sodomizing of Edward with the poker, we listen to the never-ending screams and watch the agonizing face of the King. As the screams continue, even the hard faces of the jailers show a realization of just how horrible their actions are. The happy ending Jarman contrives for the film, which is another alteration of Marlowe, does nothing to erase this scene of terror from the mind of the viewer. The killing of the King in such a terrifying manner laden with sexual overtones becomes a way of denying him power - both in the political realm and as a sexual being.

All of these scenes of torture and death link sexuality and power, but this symbiotic relationship has its fullest expression in the torture and murder of Kent. The scene is a bare room with Kent handcuffed to the arms of his chair. The chair is in a bright, overhead spotlight. Isabella and young Prince Edward stand to the right and watch as Mortimer, not dressed in a military uniform anymore but in a dress suit identifying himself with royalty, hits Kent in the stomach during questioning. Kent says to Mortimer, "Art thou King? Must I die at thy command? / Either my brother or his son is King. / And none of both them thirst for my blood" (156). At this point, Isabella moves behind Kent, gently and affectionately rubs his hair, makes eye contact with him, and bends down to his neck. The expectation of the viewer is that she is seducing Kent and about to use her mouth to arouse him in some way. What happens is totally unexpected and is lifted directly out of the horror genre. Instead of a kiss, Isabella bites Kent's jugular vein while he screams and writhes. When he stops moving, she raises up and spits his own blood back in his face. Jarman takes the words "thirst for my blood" literally and makes Isabella a vampire. Mortimer and Isabella leave the boy alone with Kent. He walks to his uncle, pushes him to make sure he is dead, rakes blood off Kent's neck with one finger, and placing the finger in his mouth, tastes the blood. The vampirism is generational.

O'Pray calls the scene "intensely erotic" (1991: 8). Jarman taps into the current popular interest in sexual and political vampirism to elevate his own depiction of the relationship between sex and power to a mythic level. The connection of vampirism to economics, power, and politics is as old as the early 1700s (Melton, 1994: 481), and Karl Marx even used the image of the vampire to describe the way capitalism sucks the life out of the laboring classes (X, 1906: 257). The point in depicting the death of Kent as vampirism seems clear. A government that maims and kills its subjects and nobles rather than protecting them is the metaphoric equivalent of a vampire preying on the weak and powerless and destroying the once powerful. In the last thirty years, an explosion of vampire novels has been published which repeatedly use and expand on the notion of the vampiric government and/or the powerful sexual vampire. [See Kim Newman's The Bloody Red Baron (1995), and Dan Simmon's The Children of the Night (1992), as examples.] The vampire myth has become one of the most impressive archetypes in our culture for the misuse of power and sexual attraction - an archetype Derek Jarman completely understands (Trapp, 1999).

Among the scenes of power-mongering, brutality, torture, and death, Jarman sprinkles "love" scenes, which quite often feature brutality and torture as well. Very early in the film, Gaveston and Edward are shown dressed in white and seated on the throne. Although the original script, according to Jarman's notes, called for this to be a sex scene, in the end the two characters merely "had a cuddle" rather than "an act of buggery" (1991: 26). As the two men cuddle and kiss, dancers in black mimic the pair. Music plays, light shines, movement and laughter abounds. Immediately, the scene is cut to another, very different "love" scene, one that is static, cold, without much motion. The setting is the King and Queen's bed chamber with the white bed sitting directly in front of an open passageway. The implication is that what goes on in the private bed chamber is public knowledge and, in some way, impacts the listening, watching public. Isabella, with her cold face and blue negligee, is astride Edward in a superior position. As she bends down to kiss him, he turns his head. She reaches out to touch his face and he, with force, blocks her hand with a glancing blow. Shamed and rejected, Isabella rolls over and stares at the ceiling. The only emotion on her face is in her eyes. The King then beats his head on the stone wall until he bleeds. Anguish is clearly registered on his face. This scene was planned and executed without any dialog at all. Jarman believed the scene was as realistic as possible, considering that all "bed scenes are nearly always super-real" (O'Pray, 1991: 9). Edward is frustrated by a marriage that he does not want; Isabella simply is in the way, especially when she tries to be in control of the situation. The sexual miscues between the two re-play the problems in governance of the realm. Isabella is on the outside of both the bedroom and the court. The scene of her wringing her hands while the nobles whisper of her mistreatment is extremely degrading. In this world, sex and governing cannot be separated; national and sexual identity go hand in hand. Society will not allow a "divorce between public and private" (MacCabe, 1992: 16).

Isabella is slowly and methodically stripped of her sexuality and power to rule by the rejection of the King. In an amazingly powerful and surprising scene, Gaveston brutally teases her after a concert in order to assert his own power over her and the King. This further diminishes her sexuality. Later, the King, enraged at Gaveston's exile, interrupts a dress fitting to find the Queen. She looks particularly feminine and delicate in this scene, wrapped in a cocoon of sheer white cloth, shapely, glowing. Edward is oblivious to all this. He vents his anger at her, and grabbing her roughly by the nape of the neck, manhandles her like a puppet. He asserts his power over her sexually and physically. She pleads her powerlessness to help Gaveston. He shoves her away saying, "Away then. / Touch me not." Jarman notes about this scene, "The last line, 'Touch me not,' I find frightening" (Jarman, 1991: 72). The Queen slumps down to her knees. She is totally wasted, used up, unsexed.

When later Isabella is rejected yet again for Gaveston, she recreates her sexuality and her power by approaching Mortimer in a passageway. She catches Mortimer in the hall, covers him with her sheer veil and begins kissing him. Mortimer does not even recognize the Queen with this new aura of sexuality and strength. He asks, "Who's this, the Queen?" Jarman deliberately injects "element[s] of a real horror film" into this scene (O'Pray, 1991: 10), showing up in the plotting, spooky, secretive nature of the tryst, as well as in the viewer's growing awareness of what Isabella is becoming. The sexual, powerful creature Isabella is remaking herself into is a stag killer, a vampiric eater of men, a murderer of Kings - she is a monster in the making. She does not sustain this energy throughout the film, however. In Isabella's bedroom scene with Mortimer, Jarman gives us a picture of a sexless couple. He lies on the bed reading, according to Jarman, Unholy Babylon, about the life of Saddam Hussein. Isabella, with her hair in a towel and her face smeared with an ugly blue facial mask, wriggles her fingers at Mortimer and says dispassionately, "Be thou persuaded that I love thee well." Neither of them shows any emotion now. Once they have wrested control of the kingdom and become tyrants, their sexual energy is drained. Only in the struggle for power did sexuality play an equal role.

Mortimer is a central figure in an intricately cut sequence that crystallizes the symbiotic relationship of sexuality and autocratic power. In the darkened throne room, a naked Gaveston sits in much the same position as he sits during the storm scene howling like an animal. In this scene, he bounces around upon the seat of the throne on his toes while gesturing wildly with his arms and making maniacal noises. Jarman says that Gaveston here becomes a "frightful clucking demon" (1991: 30). The scene cuts to Mortimer suddenly awakened by the noises. He is in bed with two "wild girls" who are also awakened. They display only minimal annoyance at the interruption of their sleep, light cigarettes, and kiss each other. Mortimer, on the other hand, is outraged by the disruption. "This Edward is the ruin of the realm," he mutters as he slips on a leopard skin coat and storms into the throne room. When Gaveston sees Mortimer, he says, "Were I a king." Mortimer interrupts him, calling him a villain and upbraiding him about his lack of social status. This scene clearly demonstrates visually that Gaveston's sexuality is to him a tool to gain ascendancy. He sits naked on the spot he so desires. Mortimer is all too aware of Gaveston's aims, since he will also use his sexuality to rise to the throne. Edward at this point slips from behind the throne, where he has been standing unobserved. Mockingly, he offers his crown and throne to Mortimer. Although he seems oblivious to Gaveston's aims, he does understand Mortimer's thirst for power.

Then who really causes the ruin of the realm? Mortimer thinks it is the base Gaveston filled with ambition, corrupting the social fabric of the country as he has corrupted the King sexually. The King and Gaveston think it is the high born Mortimer, who is corrupted by a desire not to submit to rule by the King, ironically represented by Mortimer's use of the wild girls. These girls appear in another scene with Mortimer in which he is bound and sexually tortured. Dressed in black furs and leather with black leather stiletto heels, they tug, grind, pull, and humiliate Mortimer, a willing participant in the sadomasochistic struggle. Mortimer says, "The court is naked," reminding the audience of the scene with Gaveston naked on the throne. He and the other nobles of the court see Gaveston's social climbing as a violation or rape of the system. Their disgust at the homosexual relationship of the King and Gaveston becomes an expression of their political disgust. Mortimer's aspirations to the throne and forced subjugation to Edward is for him a politically sadomasochistic relationship.

Sadomasochists are caught up in "symbiotic enmeshments of power and powerlessness," and just as surely, culture can become politically sadomasochistic (Chancer, 1992: 1). Edward never appears performing as King in an act of proper governing; he allows Gaveston and the thugs to administer a form of justice. He even uses his own bloody hands to deliver his own version of "justice." He listens to poetry readings, plays cards with the boys, exercises in the gym, plays tennis with his brother, and dances with Gaveston. A king who refuses to govern places his kingdom in a political thraldom in which the whole realm suffers. Chancer notes that "social insecurities" occur when people become "disproportionately dependent on the opinions and judgments of others for economic and emotional survival. One may be virtually enslaved through . . . socially symbiotic bonds" (1992: 216). In spite of the ineptitude of the King, the people cannot do without him. They are virtually slaves to his whim - the powerless to the powerful. Fears result from a sadomasochistic situation in which the rulers are not serving the people and great inequality exists. These fears, in turn, affect the lives of the people within the state in profound ways. One of the things this film does particularly well is show how a diseased government is tied symbiotically to diseased private lives. The distinction between the public and private is non-existent. "Analyzing an instance of sexual sadomasochism renders inseparable the personal and political dimensions of life" (Chancer, 1992: 44).

Jarman uses sexuality as a way to get at the political nature of every aspect of life. The homoeroticism seems to threaten the security and well being of the political system, but as the film progresses, we realize that the political system has no integrity to shake. Gregory W. Bredbeck says that "the articulation of order demands means of accounting for disorder, and these means frequently involve issues of sex, sexuality, and eroticism" (1991: 47). Jarman taps into this form of discourse using sadomasochistic relationships to describe the disorder of autocratic power. The body politic's misrule is then literally inflicted on the human body and emotionally on the spirit of the individual. As the young Prince watches the vampirism of Kent, he asks his mother, "What safety may I look for?" He recognizes that the signature of the government and its order has just been inscribed permanently into the flesh of his uncle. Isabella's reply of "fear not" offers little comfort and no security for him or for the people of the realm.

The only innocent character in the film is the young Prince. He is placed in a position of uncertainty and continually identifies with differing factions in the government. At times he dresses in pajamas like his father and Gaveston, sometimes in suits like Kent, sometimes in a uniform like Mortimer, and sometimes in his mother's hats and earrings. Often, he is a shocked observer. At other times he comments or protests. In yet others he actively participates. In Jarman's words, the boy is both a "witness and a survivor." The next to last scene shows the young boy in his mother's earrings and shoes listening and directing the mechanical sounding music from The Nutcracker coming over his walkman. The boy stands on a large cage in which sit Mortimer and Isabella - white, decaying, the living dead. "Everyone is turned into a mannequin as if they'd been drained of life," Jarman notes. The boy has created his own identity out of parts of those around him. He is all that is left. Is the young Prince a hope for a better future by means of his androgynous nature, his lack of sexual orientation, or is he the confused, impotent result of a total breakdown in society?

Although that question may not be easily answered by the film, the boy's happiness and applause over the decaying plight of Isabella and Mortimer continues the upwards emotional ending of the film. The change in mood begins earlier with Lightborn tossing the poker, the instrument of death in the King's dream, into the pool. The final scene continues the growing exultation as we are presented with gay activists and representatives of the church together, mingling and touching one another in peace and harmony. Although this seems to be a happy ending for a very dark play, the voice over by Edward still lends a tinge of hopelessness. "But if I live, let me forget myself." He cannot have happiness and remember who he is - the ruler of a diseased realm. His body, though marked with the brutalities of power, finds liberation in death, in separation from the state that forces a certain role upon him. The people of the state, the film says, can also be liberated by divorcing themselves from the misrule and conventions forced upon them by the same government.

Jarman examines what it means to be a part of a political/sexual system that is sadomasochistic in autocratic control over the helpless. By making violence and sex the focus of his film, Jarman both horrifies and entices the viewer. While the film is a condemnation of violence in both the public and private spheres, it also revels in it. The viewer, because of the intertwining of sex and violence, drawn into the seduction of power. His viewers are enticed by it while at the same time feeling repulsion and brutalization. Living up to his controversial reputation, Jarman transgresses the boundaries of proprietary feeling. His film has a sadomasochistic effect on his unsuspecting audience, reflecting the subject matter of the film. Form, content, and purpose merge in artistic vision.


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