Just moments into Edward II (1991), his startling and singular radicalization of Christopher Marlowe, Derek Jarman declares his independence from the 16th century source. As a pair of nude sailors lip and suck each other upon his bed, Piers Gaveston, the exiled Earl of Cornwall, declares that he's heartened to learn of the death of one King Edward and the rise of another. Edward II is the prince who had, years before, scandalously succumbed to Gaveston's allurements. Those allurements plainly discernible beneath his diaphanous shift, Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan) glides around a bedpost with a pole dancer's elan and then appends to a line of Marlowe's poetry -- "As for the multitude, that are but sparks, raked up in embers of their poverty" -- a libertine "fuck 'em!"
Fuck 'Em might have been this Edward II's subtitle. Still the bracing jolt it was in '91, Jarman's sparely elegant but urgently brazen recasting of Marlowe's tragedy seizes the theme of the historic (and artistic) vilification of homosexuality. The real Gaveston was executed in 1312 after the real monarch refused to banish him again. Jarman centers men's bodies in his frames throughout the film, including a study of a strongman wrapped in a snake, a glimpse of an army workout right out of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and a flashlit vision of nude warriors in a scrum. But the true shock comes right from the 1500s: "Is it not queer that he is this bewitched?" asks the queen (Tilda Swinton) of her husband, upon Gaveston's return. Jarman and his cast dance and feast upon Marlowe's subtext. But for all its bold provocations and welcome score settling, this Edward II also is a triumph of drama and dramaturgy.