“There are more walls in England than Berlin, Johnny”
While the short poem Ford Madox Brown wrote to accompany his painting The Last of England has a hopeful lilt (“…She grips his listless hand and clasps her child, Through rainbow tears she sees a sunnier gleam, She cannot see a void where he will be.”), the film Derek Jarman has created with the same name does not. Where the painting shows a couple leaving their country for greener pastures, the film depicts that country having left its people. It starts with a junkie roaming the city with his arm tied off and continues into a world lorded over by an oppressive military force in masks. Jarman looks at the age of Margaret Thatcher with disdain, its dark years leaving Britain’s lower class with nowhere to go.
The result becomes an obviously personal film, sentiments confirmed by the artist himself through a companion book dealing with his relationship with his father. And while its meaning to an American like myself who was only five when the movie released may be lost, its impact is not. What’s onscreen is a powerful roar of aggression, its imagery depicting gay sex between a naked punk and a masked officer jarring on the surface as well as beneath. We see fantasy in a mythological creature’s dance cut and projected atop a bacchanale of women; an off-kilter wedding with men in dresses and a bride (Tilda Swinton) tearing at her gown; and a supposed bookend construct depicting a scholar at his desk and narration by Nigel Terry that disappears halfway through.
There’s a junkyard, happy citizens, and firing squads: each vignette warped and pulsating to a rock score that hits your senses whether you understand the underlying meaning or not. This is the level at which I enjoyed everything—a purely visceral one. I could bask in the odd juxtapositions and gradual movement from singular character arc to nation’s survival, the details less important to my enjoyment than the formal aesthetic used. Sometimes images flicker to the music and sometimes to visual cues. One instance has the screen shift on certain beats and then when the character in frame moves his eyes upon us. Everything is carefully orchestrated to the smallest of details, the shifts in story working as a means of progression more than evolution.
I’m not certain if there’s a connection between Swinton’s screaming bride opposite a burning fire and the junkie slumped in the corner of a dilapidated building. Does one infer on the other or are both merely manifestations of Jarman’s emotional state at the time? Is anything a strict representation of reality or is it all just a personification of the frustration and anger the director used this outlet to release? I have to believe it’s the latter because there are moments that reminded me of another political British artist in Banksy. One that comes to mind is the night dance of two masked agents of the administration who just finished mowing down a group of prisoners on the roof (despite the prisoners being seen as seemingly okay afterwards).
But these flights of fancy don’t read optimistically. I don’t see a hopeful view of the future and what is coming. I see the joy of those in power reveling in their immortality. I see a force of destruction embracing its role as judge, jury, and executioner knowing that it’s safe as long as it is the one with the guns. These are the passages that seem to speak to America in 2017, a foreshadowing of the horrors one side sees as inevitable and the other hyperbole. It’s no surprise, though, that the former consists of members in the lower classes and the latter in the upper. Our world has always been about who wields power and the backs on which they stand without a shred of remorse.
The Last of England proves a lasting impression of a period that we see repeating itself. It therefore documents and provides a premonition, words at the start talking about how protests are not enough and an embrace of the past useless in lieu of the present. Any person at risk of falling under the umbrella of an unchecked regime (whether Thatcher-era England was one or not) can see themselves in the fringes of Jarman’s incendiary poem shot on Super 8 and video. He forsakes narrative to ensure he touches our emotions, striking a guttural call to arms that transcends intellectual discourse or hope of compromise. This isn’t about returning to the way things were, but to make sure we don’t continue moving towards the disaster that might be.