Edward II
Produced by Steve Clark-Hall and Antony Root
Directed by Derek Jarman
Screenplay by Derek Jarman, Stephen McBride, and Ken Butler
Based on the play by Christopher Marlowe
Released by Fine Line Features

Howards End
Produced by Ishmail Merchant
Directed by James Ivory
Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Based on the novel by E.M. Forster
A Sony Pictures Classic Release

I went to Edward II, expecting to hate it. In New Haven the week before, I had seen the extraordinarily fine production of the play Stan Wojewodski, the new dean of the Yale Drama School, had mounted at the Yale Rep, and I was skeptical of any screen version, particularly a gay-rights polemicization. Whatever Marlowe’s own sexual orientation, it seems clear that his rendition of Edward II’s homosexual liaison with Piers Gaveston was intended as yet another and almost incidental perversion. The promotion by Edward of his lowborn minion over the nobles was the primary violation of order and the main affront to Mortimer and other peers. In any event, the drumbeat for the gay-liberation parade had not begun to sound either in Edward’s time (early 14th century) or Marlowe’s (the play was registered in 1594).

Mostly, though, I had been amazed at the power of Wojewodski’s production, the effectiveness of the staging on Michael Yeargan’s amazing set, the dramatic lighting by Jennifer Tipton (who teaches lighting now at Yale), and the extraordinary music of Kim Sherman who uses a glass harmonica, violins, cello, and drums, to particularly eerie and menacing effect. There was a certain unevenness to the cast and a considerable range in its abilities with the declamation of blank verse, but through its energy and concentration, it brought the sprawling play to life and by the end to splendid incandescence. Byron Jennings’ Edward was just right: childish and willful but never totally contemptible and, toward the end, quite moving. And Thomas Gibson as Gaveston and Cara Duff-MacCormick as Isabel were admirably inventive in their strategies for resisting the monotones of their roles.

Shakespeare’s Richard II—with which Edward II is sometimes paired in repertory productions—is in many ways similar. Both plays show us foolish kings who, undone by their folly, repent of it too late. Shakespeare’s drama is sensible and sane, recognizing the inevitability of Bolingbroke’s triumph and yet able to mourn the loss and the death of a Richard who may be incompetent but is poetic and, in his way, more wonderful than the man who has displaced him. Marlowe’s Edward is impossible, a dandy, a totally inappropriate fellow to be a king, but Marlowe gives him a grand threnody that must have been the model for Shakespeare’s play, written in 1594 or 1595. How could Shakespeare not have been moved and challenged by the grandeur of the defeated king’s complaint? Marlowe writes:

The griefs of private men are soon allay’d

But not of kings. The forest deer, being struck.

Runs to an herb that closeth up the wounds;

But, when the imperial lion’s flesh is gor’d

He rends and tears it with his wrathful paw,

And highly scorning that the lowly earth

Should drink his blood, mounts up into the air.

And so it fares with me, whose dauntless mind

The ambitious Mortimer would seek to curb,

And that unnatural queen, false Isabel,

That thus hath pent and mew’d me in a prison;

For such outrageous passions cloy my soul

As with the wings of rancour and disdain

Full often am I soaring up to Heaven,

To plain me to the gods against them both.

But when I call to mind I am a king,

Methinks I should revenge me of the wrongs

That Mortimer and Isabel have done.

But what are kings, when regiment is gone.

But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?

It is splendid stuff, and Jarman has taken this splendor as warrant for some kind of gay-lib manifesto. For Marlowe, however, the homosexual affair was relevant not because it was any more or less immoral than a heterosexual liaison would have been, but because a man, as the king’s favorite, was a danger to the kingdom in a wav no woman could have been.

Jarman’s film was produced in part for the BBC, which will air it next year for the 400th anniversary of Marlowe’s death, and the director may also have figured that he could make it an act of defiance, using the text as a gauntlet to throw in the faces of such stodges as Jesse Helms and Margaret Thatcher. Edward’s balmy incompetence as a ruler seems to Jarman not even worth mention. At one point in the play, for instance, Edward gets word of the loss of Normandy but is not even interested because he is so absorbed in his longing for Gaveston’s return. In the film, though, this is cut, and we get instead odd emendations and additions, not so much of dialogue as of action. The play calls for Edward’s brother, Edmund, the Earl of Kent, to be beheaded offstage. Jarman has Isabel, Edward’s Queen, descend on her manacled brother-in-law and bite him in the neck, ripping out a huge gobbet of flesh and tearing at his veins deeply enough to kill him. She is played by Tilda Swinton, whose beauty is here made to be horrible, literally vampish. She does this bloody deed in front of her young son, Edward III, who is inexplicably wearing a tuxedo, dangling earrings, and lipstick. (Has he gone gay too? Or will he, when he reaches puberty? And if so, do we blame the mother?)

But it is not my purpose here simply to deplore the film. I expected to dislike it, and, in the end, I did regret some of its liberties, but I was also struck by its visual power, impressed by the cast, and agreeably surprised by some of its subtler touches. In the film version, for example, Andrew Tiernan’s Gaveston delivers his Marlovian verse with a decided Cockney bite—which would have been remarkably effective and apposite in the Yale production. There are predictable gay-rights parades and demonstrations. There are also a couple of dance numbers—one funny, the other quite striking —and there is a wacky moment in which Annie Lenox of the Eurythmics comes on to sing Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” as a kind of MTV dramatization of the moment when Edward (Steven Waddington), having banished Gaveston, has to say good-bye.

The nonrepresentational space of the play was a series of ladders and drawbridges that could be raised and lowered in different configurations. The film is in another kind of nonrepresentational setting, some grand but primitive structure that has monumental walls of whitewashed stone but dirt floors, and the costumes are more or less contemporary. It flows with nightmare authenticity and has the Senecan rage and excess that enliven the Elizabethan theater of blood. Edward’s grotesque demise—Lightborn, Mortimer’s agent, comes to Berkeley Castle, does what is basically a love scene with Edward, and then rams a red hot poker up his rear end—must surely rank with the butcher-shop conclusion of ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore, but Jarman elects to switch the order of these pieces of business, giving us the death first, then turning that death into a dream—because how else can we account for the fact that Edward is still living, still there? And then we get the love scene in which Edward and Lightborn rather chastely kiss. Strange, but why not?

Jarman’s ending is total fancy, or, to put it another way, has no relation whatever with the text of Marlowe’s play. Sometimes, this can work well, as when Queen Isabel comes on to Gaveston, and he appears to be receptive to her startling overture, only to turn it into a nasty joke and, perhaps, an occasion for blackmail. There is an exchange of dialogue in the play of a couple of lines that Jarman rips out of context to use here, but there is no such action in the play. Still, in its suggestion of an atmosphere of general corruption, it is at least plausible and entirely consonant with Marlowe’s fascination and disgust. On the other hand, the ending is a strange piece of business in which the young Edward III, a depraved, Caligula-like creature with the tux and the earrings, is dancing in autoerotic triumph to the music of the Nutcracker (the “Sugarplum Fairy,” actually) that blares from his Walkman. The camera pulls back and we see, below him, Mortimer and Isabel in formal dress but in a cage. Marlowe thought it was sufficient to have Edward III mouth conventional pieties as he is presented with Mortimer’s head.

Howards End has had a lot of praise, some of which is deserved—the costumes and sets are pretty, and the acting is stylish if sometimes mannered. Helena Bonham-Carter and Anthony Hopkins are particularly good, although Vanessa Redgrave plays Ruth Wilcox with a fatigue that is not indicated in the novel and leaves us mystified as to how and why the friendship could have grown up between her and Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson). Mostly, I think, there is the bandwagon syndrome—the agreeable Room with a View and Passage to India having numbed critics into expecting another Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala translation not just of one more reputable Forster novel but of what is most probably his masterpiece. This moviemaking has enhanced Forster’s reputation, and there is also the tempting promise that movies can provide all the good (fun? uplift? a combination of these?) of the novel without the nuisance of our having to sound out its long words or labor through the tedium of its subordinate clauses.

I don’t get it. Anyone but a dyslexic who is smart enough to enjoy this movie is smart enough to read the book and, therefore, feel annoyance about a film that wrecks one after another of Forster’s carefully planted structural devices and blows almost every artful surprise. When Helen turns out to be pregnant rather than mad, it is, in the novel, a stunning revelation. But if we have already seen her making love with Leonard Bast in a rowboat, we are not likely to be astonished. When it turns out that the Schlegels’ furniture has been unpacked and installed in Howards End, in the book this is a quirky action of the dotty housekeeper, and therefore a kind of miracle. The house, itself, seems to be welcoming them and even calling out for the reparation of the old wrong of the denied inheritance. In the film, we see the housekeeper arranging the Schlegels’ possessions and thus cannot be surprised or amazed. (Neither can we possibly understand why Henry Wilcox thinks it impossible for anyone to spend even one night there.)

Clumsy, pretentious, and wrongheaded altogether, the film is worst of all monotonous. The range and the passion of the novel are missing. The way in which Forster, a homosexual, looked at the constraints of class and money and how these affect heterosexual love was fascinating, and his disinterested compassion informed and enlivened a book far too engaging for this dull and pompous presentation. The great love of Forster’s life was with a young man named Mohammed, an Alexandrian tram conductor—a liaison that would have been impossible for heterosexuals because, with them, the issue is issue and there are property rights as well as proprieties to worry about. Forster taught Latin for a while at the Working Men’s College in Bloomsbury where he would have met a number of Leonard Basts and even fallen in love with one or another of them—although for him to express such love would have been even more ruinous than it was for Helen Schlegel.

I cannot for the life of me imagine what the reviewers were thinking who lavished praise on this traduction—as most did. When I was a kid and working as the flicker-picker at Newsweek, the only movie reviewer who seemed to me sane and reliable was Brendan Gill. He moved on to other, loftier realms—theater and then architecture. And no one trustworthy seems to be left. Except for me, of course.

Such conclusions can be occasions for concern about one’s mental health— but not, I think, this time.