Like Howards End, Edward II reaches back to the past – this time to a 1592 Christopher Marlowe play – to illuminate the present. Unlike E.M. Forster, British director Derek Jarman does not hide his homosexuality. Forster delayed publication of his gay-themed novel Maurice until after his death in 1970. Jarman, who is HIV positive, uses his films (Sebastiane, Caravaggio) to express his gay activism. The anachronistic liberties he takes with Marlowe expose contemporary gay-bashing and result in a mesmerizing film that bristles with fury, sexuality and radical wit.
After his father’s death, Edward II (Steve Waddington) infuriates his barons and his French queen, Isabella (Tilda Swinton), by sending for his lover Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan). Jarman has designed the movie to jar complacency. Edward and Gaveston talk while two naked men tangle erotically in the background. Annie Lennox of Eurythmics pops up to serenade the lovers with a Cole Porter ballad. The elegant Isabella – Swinton is a sexy, roaring wonder in the role – becomes a gun-toting, bloodsucking vampire after losing her husband’s affections. In showing the antigay prejudices behind Edward’s violent fall, Jarman makes Edward II more than a visually arresting stunt; it’s a piercing cry from the heart.