Next, Judge Gordon Sullivan reviews The Nineteenth of Lichtenstein.
A kaleidoscopic view of his country's culture and history.
The 1980s were a dark time in Britain. Though we in America tend to think of Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher as rough peers, both conservative politicians with an emphasis on economic recovery, many British citizens who lived through her "reign" think differently. For a number of reasons, America bounced back more quickly from the devastating stagflation of the 1970s, leading to more prosperity during the following decade. Consequently, where so many of the cultural artifacts of Eighties America are upbeat and focused on prosperity, much of British culture was more dystopian and negative. Few artists embodied that idea more than Derek Jarman. After creating one of the most essential documents of Seventies punk (Jubilee), Jarman struggled to get his next film (Caravaggio) made. After that experience he went back to the well, and the result was The Last of England, a meditation on Thatcher's Britain told simultaneously in the most personal and most iconic terms. It's a triumph of experimental cinema, and The Last of England (Blu-ray) is simply gorgeous.
Facts of the Case
In a film largely devoid of traditional narrative, Tilda Swinton wanders the industrial ruins of England watching the horrors of contemporary England (including fascist violence) unfold. These scenes are intercut with the idyllic scenes of home movies from Jarman's childhood.
Like so many experimental filmmakers, Derek Jarman struggled with the difficulties of securing funding for films that were unlikely to return anything significant on the investment. This problem was only compounded in Thatcher's Britain, as arts funding was cut back in the face of increased emphasis on funding for business. After waiting seven years to complete Caravaggio, Jarman was reluctant to shoot another expensive film, so he turned to the Super 8mm format to shoot his films more cheaply. The result is the unique beauty of The Last of England. Amazingly, the griminess of the Super 8 look emphasizes both the horror of the contemporary violence and the utopian qualities of Jarman's earlier home movies.
Overall, Jarman's argument seems to be pretty simple: Britain has moved away from the idyllic era of its past into a newly brutal, fascistic state. This is not an old argument in British culture; the Kinks did it in Sixties with The Village Green Preservation Society and so much of the fascist imagery in Seventies punk comes from the same place. What separates Jarman's film, however, is the power of his imagery. He pulls no punches in showing the worst that England has to offer in 1988.
Jarman is also helped by his unique personal vision. 1988 was the year that the Thatcher government attempted to passed Section 28, a controversial piece of legislation that was aimed at stopping the spread of homosexuality in Britain. As a gay man, Jarman was in a position to feel the sting of Thatcher's conservatism more than many other artists working at the time. It was, in a sense, personal for Jarman. That comes across in the fact that his own home movies are used in the film. These are not idyllic recreations of some imagined past, but actual documents of what his life was like decades prior. That kind of effect cannot be recreated.
Though Jarman is the force behind The Last of England, Tilda Swinton is its star. Though now she's known as a world-class actress with a string of big-budget and not-so-big-budget films to her name, in the late Eighties and early Nineties, Swinton was the go-to actress for odd British films. Aside from multiple Jarman projects, she brought her androgynous good looks to other strange fare, like Orlando. Here she is the face of England, and it's one that suits her perfectly. She embodies the horror of the imagery and offers an anchor for an audience lost in a sea of imagery.
This Blu-ray makes it possible to enjoy The Last of England in the best way possible short of renting a pristine 8mm print yourself. The 1.66:1 AVC-encoded high definition transfer is gorgeous. Don't misunderstand—The Last of England is not a particularly great-looking film. Because of its Super 8 origins, the film can be soft, colors can be washed out or oversaturated, grain is very present, and blacks can fluctuate. That said, this 1080p transfer ensures the film looks exactly like it's supposed to. Detail is appropriate for the source, grain is well-handled and never becomes unnatural or noisy. Colors are spot-on, and not digital manipulation or artefacting appear to mar the image. Again, short of a pristine print, this is the best presentation anyone could ask for. The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track is similarly good, but there are greater limitations on the source tracks. Narration, though, is clear and intelligible, which is the important thing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Where are the extras? Jarman passed tragically before the era of ubiquitous DVD supplements, but I'm sure there are contemporary interviews with him. Even if not, Tilda Swinton is still around, and I'd love to hear her thoughts on working with Jarman and what she thinks of the film. Also, Jarman was a prolific director of shorter films and it would be great to see some included here as bonuses.
Obviously The Last of England is not a film for everyone. It lacks a traditional narrative, character development, or anything that resembles mainstream cinema. The Last of England requires patience and an open mind for any kind of enjoyment. Those with fond memories of Thatcher's England might also want to skip this one, as Jarman pulls no punches in painting his portrait of what he thinks her version of England looks like.
The Last of England is a tough, personal, confrontational bit of cinema. Jarman's dystopian view of the disintegration of his country is given a fantastic Blu-ray presentation, with an absolutely gorgeous transfer. Though the lack of extras is a bit disappointing, this disc is worth a rental or purchase for fans of Jarman's work and experimental cinema in general.
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