The Last of England

English Title: The Last of England

Country of Origin: Britain

Studio: Anglo International, British Screen, Channel 4/Blue Dolphin

Director: Derek Jarman

Producer(s): James Mackay, Don Boyd

Screenplay: Derek Jarman

Cinematographer: Cerith Wyn Evans, Derek Jarman, Christopher Hughes, Richard Heslop

Editor: Sally Yeadon, John Maybury, Angus Cook, Peter Cartwright

Runtime: 87 minutes

Genre: Art

Language: English

Starring/Cast: Nigel Terry, Tilda Swinton, Spencer Leigh

Year: 1987

Volume: British


Not so much a story as a series of images; the director sits at his desk, writing and working on a collage using black tar and bullets. In a rubble-strewn wasteland, a young punk shoots up with heroin and tramples and defiles a reproduction of Caravaggio’s painting Profane Love, while another throws rocks into a pool. Soldiers in balaclavas round up refugees at gunpoint and one rapes another man on the Union Jack. An androgynous figure dances. The Queen inspects her troops. A man and a woman get married. The man is captured and executed by the soldiers. The bride, mourning his death, tears at her wedding dress with a pair of shears and dances wildly around a fire. Refugees leave in an image that recalls Ford Madox Brown’s painting, The Last of England. Intercut with these sequences are home movies of Jarman’s childhood, in faded colour, shot by the director’s father. Throughout, the actor Nigel Terry reads Jarman’s poetic voiceover in an official-sounding BBC 'RP' accent.


Although Derek Jarman made some films, such as The Tempest (1979) and Caravaggio (1986), that are reasonably conventional in shape and form, several of his works blur the usually clear distinction between art cinema and the avant-garde. The Last of England is certainly one of these. For example, it was entirely shot on lightweight, hand-held Super8 cameras (later blown up to 35mm). The cheapness of this ‘amateur’ equipment meant that Jarman and his collaborators could afford to shoot a large amount of footage and work without the fully-developed script required by most producers.


Although it is loose in structure, there is some narrative shape, which began to develop as shooting and editing progressed, most notably, the shots of Jarman working at his desk imply that the film depicts his vision. This links The Last of England to the avant-garde tradition of the ‘trauma film’, typified by Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks (1947) in which the film-makers appear to dream the narrative. However, while these earlier films were shorts, Jarman's is feature length, again complicating the division between underground and more commercial modes of art cinema.


The film is also aesthetically distinctive. Jarman was liberated by the mobility and freedom the Super8 cameras offered after what he saw as the rigid formality of shooting Caravaggio entirely in 35mm. Visually, the two films are as different as day and night. Caravaggio is comprised almost entirely of carefully-lit static tableaux, whereas The Last of England is constantly moving. Furthermore, Jarman thought that the grainy image and diffused colour of Super8 footage blown up to 35mm had a uniquely 'painterly' quality.


The Last of England differed greatly from Jarman’s previous Super8 feature, The Angelic Conversation (1985). Where the earlier film was lyrical and languidly paced, The Last of England is aggressive both in content and form. In the hiatus between The Tempest and Caravaggio, Jarman directed several music videos and this experience clearly influenced the film: the ‘disco’ sequence contains no less than 1,600 cuts and this rapid editing, combined with the constant camera movement and changes of film speed can put the viewer on edge.


While the film’s anger is partly directed at Thatcherism, the Falklands war and the Royal Wedding, it remains a personal rather than a political statement. Indeed, its bleak tone owes much to Jarman’s discovery during post-production that he was HIV-positive. The Last of England is a key film in Jarman's career, and his subsequent works, though varied in form, often overtly engaged with the cause of gay rights. Despite its highly personal nature, the work has been influential: it helped establish the aesthetic of the modern music video and remains a central film in the development of New Queer Cinema, with directors including Gus Van Sant and Michael Almereyda noting their admiration of it. 

Author of this review: Brian Hoyle

Peer reviewer: Brian Hoyle