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In this Derek Jarman version of Christopher Marlowe's Elizabethan drama, in modern costumes and settings, Plantagenet king Edward II hands the power-craving nobility the perfect excuse by taking as lover besides his diplomatic wife, the French princess Isabel, not an acceptable lady at court but the ambitious Piers Gaveston, who uses his favor in bed even to wield political influence - the stage is set for a palace revolt which sends the gay pair from the throne to a terminal torture dungeon. Written by
The story of Edward II is a story of obsession, of a man whose one-track mind causes him to lose his kingdom, his lover and his life. Marlowe's play (probably his most dramatic and certainly his least poetic) gives lots of scope for developing the problems raised by Edward's infatuation for the unscrupulous and self-seeking Gaveston: his inattention to affairs of state, his irresponsible spending, his granting of important positions to Gaveston who has no interest in actually fulfilling his duties and Gaveston's general contempt for church, nobility and everyone else.
Unfortunately director Jarman has arranged this production in such a way as to make us see Edward's story through Edward's eyes rather than those of an outside observer. The sets are mostly pueblo-style interiors, giving the impression that this is a middle-class household not the palace of a king. There are no extras, and the scenes are bare of people, again reinforcing the idea that this is a private rather than a public story. The nobles are treated as tourists who are out of place in the life of the king. Our attention is focussed constantly on the intimate relations between individuals: Edward and Gaveston, Edward and Isobel, Isobel and Mortimer.
Edward, whose whole life was dominated by his obsessive love for Gaveston (just count how many times he says "my Gaveston" in the play) saw his world in just this way: everything anyone did was measured against how it affected his romance, and everything he did was to further it. When Isobel abandons him, she loses her humanity and becomes in his eyes a grotesque vampire. Indeed one wonders how much of what we see as reality in the film is Edward's fantasies and imaginings as he becomes increasingly deranged.
An intriguing approach, perhaps, but the problem is that Edward's one-track mind makes for a one-track monochromatic presentation, and quite frankly it becomes so superficial as to be tedious after a bit. Without the depth provided by an objective viewpoint we lose interest.
Scenes of unnamed naked men making love or playing rugby without a ball must have been put in for the titillation of gay viewers. They added nothing to the story. On the other hand the love between Edward and Gaveston was sincerely and persuasively played, and a good thing too, because that's about all you get here.
Waddington's performance is splendid and gives a lot of life to what might otherwise have been a total yawn; it's worth the trouble of watching this just to see him. Tilda Swinton's performance is overrated; she delivers her best monologue as slowly and tonelessly as possible and it doesn't take long to start wondering when she's going to show some emotion.
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