Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Last of England (Jarman, 1987)

The Last of England
Directed by Derek Jarman
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Rupert Audley, Gay Gaynor, Matthew Hawkins, Spencer Leigh, Gerrard McCarthur, Jonathan Phillips, Nigel Terry
Grade: A

You know how every so often a film comes along that just blows your mind? Well Derek Jarman's The Last of England is this kind of film. Not only because its 87-minute running time is composed of, essentially, a montage of striking cultural representations, much like Luis Buñuel's 1930 film L'Âge d'or, but because its themes are both bold and audacious. The title 'The Last of England' is taken from a painting by Ford Madox Brown of two people leaving England to start a new life abroad. This image could not be more suited to Jarman's political intentions, acting as an intertextual reference in his doomed, apocalyptic view of the country.

Having grown up in a northern town I have been exposed to a lot of Thatcher resentment. The effects of her government can still be felt here -- not necessarily in my town but delapidated run-down mining villages close by -- and thus it can be a touchy subject. Jarman made this after seven years of Tory rule; a film that is visually captivating in all of its ugly reality, that is made with such ferocity and bitterness. It acts as a political rant in itself, taking a pop at the institutionalised Thatcher government, and the way its obsession with capitalism, consumerism and manipulation led to such social neglect and ignorance. The amazing thing though is that in making the style and tone of the film so quick, so harsh, so angry, Jarman has encapsulated his generation. A whole entire new film can be made about the political effects of an angry Britain, and perhaps some have, but it takes some doing to make something with such an ingrained social context span decades in insight and relevance.

I must say that I would have to think long and hard about watching this film again, not really because of how its made (although it's very intimidating) but rather that what it says is so painfully honest. It achieves more than any socio-realist drama I've seen from Ken Loach or Mike Leigh because it is neither dated or inaccurate and actually surpasses post-modernity. According to IMDB, The Last of England never got a theatrical release in this country, which certainly isn't surprising given its unconventional style and scathing political commentary, but with every fibre of my being I urge you to rent this film. Especially if you're English.

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