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The Last of England

The Last of England, 1987

Incorporating a mix of documentary footage from Derek Jarmanís youth and fictionalized sequences of a dystopian, authoritarian future, this film explores the degradation of decency and democracy in England.

For several minutes in the middle act of this film, a naked man consumes a plucked-from-the-field raw cauliflower while standing next to a barrel fire. Absorb that. Appreciate that. Are you in, or are you out?

Iím definitely in. Jarmanís eye for dramatic staging, willingness to mix film speed and camera movements speaks to me, and Iíve realized that I enjoy it whether itís framed in a highly personal context or in service to a more conventional narrative.

Jarman can certainly compose one hell of an image, something that the internet mainly seems to celebrate in the is-this-a-Vogue-cover images from a sequence featuring Tilda Swinton as a bride who, in mourning, cuts up her wedding dress with a huge pair of scissors.

But the film is full of other images that are disquieting in less conventional ways. (Though the Swinton sequence is fantastic.) My remark about the man eating the cauliflower may have seemed glib, but itís an uncomfortable viewing. Not so much because of the nudity or the frequent abrupt close-ups of the manís mouth, but because the sequence lingers on for a long time, taking away the buffer period where you might giggle a bit at the staging and forcing you to sit with this man. Feel relief as he slings a blanket around his shoulders, only for the blanket to eventually partly fall away. Wonder how aware he is of his existence, and what heís feeling in this moment.

Thereís also a scene in which a young man has sex with a soldier whose identity is entirely concealed by his uniform and mask. Like the other sequence, it goes on for a duration that exhausts the jolt instinct and leaves you to focus on the men and the enormous, inexplicable flag on which their lovemaking takes place. The staging is so allegorical as to risk absurdity, and yet itís so visceral and goes on for so long that it defies just being a shocking image.

The home movies themselves are also interesting. Frankly, itís intriguing to see someone ostensibly pining for a very middle-class upbringing with very suburban, heteronormative trappings. Youíd imagine that a gay person who was raised in the 1950s and 1960s would have some complicated feelings about their childhood (and I really donít know enough about Jarman as an individual to know about his upbringing or the relationship he had with his family as a child/teen). The film operates only at extremes: the idealized youth and the terrifying future.

I think that this is one of those films that just purely is what it is. If Jarmanís style is your thing, itíll be a hit.