Partially inspired and named after a painting by English Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown, The Last of England (1987) directed by British auteur Derek Jarman (The Garden, Wittgenstein) is an epic non-narrative cinematic poem shot on Super 8 that acts as an aesthetically-enrapturing obituary for traditional English culture and customs. Although his father was born in New Zealand and his mother was ½ Jewish by ancestry, Jarman – with the possible exception of Peter Greenaway – is arguably the most eclectically “English” director from the last couple decades of the twentieth century as testified by the distinctly Anglo-Saxon nature of his films that often tended to delight in Elizabethan, Shakespearean, and Victorian themes and aesthetics while also capturing the troubling and apocalyptic zeitgeist of his foreordained age. That being said, The Last of England – a work featuring themes of English decline that were examined in his early (anti)punk flick Jubilee (1977) and an aesthetic and narrative structure similar to his film The Angelic Conversation (1985) – is undoubtedly the grand culmination of Derek Jarman’s life as an artist and a filmmaker. Originally under the working titled The Dead Sea, The Last of England was once described by Jarman as a poetic allegorical work about, “the sinking of the Titanic, the Titanic being Great Britain.” Dissatisfied with the original, more esoteric title The Dead Sea, the lead actress of the work, Tilda Swinton, confessed to Jarman that, “You can’t call it that. It’s the most vibrant film I’ve ever seen.” Indeed, lady Swinton was positively correct in her assertion as The Last of England is one of those rare and ideally idiosyncratic films that – not unlike F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963), and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) – seems to do the seemingly impossible by totally transcending the typical constraints of the film medium, at least in a metaphysical sense. Akin to a hallucinatory drug and out-of-body experience, The Last of England was constructed by Jarman in a similar semi-unforeseeable, journey-like fashion. Shot in a random experimental manner with specific scenarios and themes outlined but with nothing resembling a 'proper' film script, the artistically-bantam British auteur was not able to fully realize the film until after spending endless time viewing and analyzing the footage he shot, thereafter dividing the work into 15 distinct sections. In fact, the film’s poet, Derek Jarman, guides The Last of England through the comfort of his somber, skull-adorned writing desk. Featuring torrid and sometimes terrifying scenes of junkies getting their kick, terrorists and tyrants turning the streets into urban battlefields, cold executions, marriages formed and irrevocably broken by state persecution, and the tiny Island state in flames, The Last of England is a penetrating and unforgettable work that was meticulously assembled by one of the Queen’s last great artists.
Taking its name from Ford Madox Brown painting of a Victorian husband and wife aboard a tightly crowed ship which is headed for a new life abroad, The Last of England is undoubtedly a more pessimistic and misanthropic work than the Pre-Raphaelite artwork that inspired it. While the couple featured in Brown’s painting may be physically cramped and wearing frowns of discontent on their faces, they – unlike the eternally damned citizens of Jarman’s The Last of England – have a potential future, even if not an ideal one. Featuring unknown non-actor Mark ‘Spring’ Adley – the debauched son of a British MP and Jarman’s onetime-lover – in the starring role, The Last of England is a film that, although decidedly avant-garde in style and sentiment, does offer a certain uncompromising gritty realism of England (and most specifically London) under “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher’s rule. Although Mr. Spring would have the nonpareil opportunity of starring in what is arguably one of the most masterly and unmitigated English films ever made, he felt that Jarman’s brand of filmmaking was completely and utterly “pointless” and instead preferred trashy popular American soap operas like Dallas and Dynasty. Of course, with the exception of narration by Nigel Terry (written by Jarman) and sound-clips from radio news and historical bigwigs like Uncle Adolf Hitler, The Last of England does not feature a single line of dialogue and certainly none of the sort of dastardly Dallas-esque melodramatic verbal quibbling Spring (whose role in the film is entirely voiceless) was keen of. As a real-life unrepentant drug-addict and perennial “wild boy,” Spring essentially plays himself in The Last of England. In fact, many of the scenarios featured in the film having a strikingly resemblance to those featured in alpha-Beat writer William S. Burroughs’ dystopian/utopian (depending on who is reading it) novel The Wild Boys (1971), which is no revelation when considering the influence the book would have on various British artists/musicians (David Bowie, Duran Duran, Joy Division, etc), including Jarman who included the junky icon in his short film Pirate Tape (1983). In fact, Jarman once remarked that as far as those individuals who inspired his brand of filmmaking, “Anger, Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Rauschenberg were the influences – Andy (Warhol), the court jester.” In a film where the lead protagonist shoots dope, masturbates over Baroque artist Caravaggio’s painting Profane Love, and feverishly plays the pipes of pan in London's burning post-industrial badlands, it is easy to see that with The Last of England, Derek Jarman both reveled in and transcended his artistic influences, henceforth leading the way for the despair-laden and seemingly ethnosuicidal Super 8 arthouse works of anomalous Aryan auteur Jörg Buttgereit (Nekromantik, Der Todesking) and – to a lesser extent – the experimental homoerotic arthouse-trash works of Bruce LaBruce (No Skin Off My Ass, The Raspberry Reich).
It was not until Derek Jarman finished directing and editing The Last of England that he was able to offer the following semi-ambiguous description of the film: “The poet wakes in a visionary landscape where he encounters personifications of psychic states.” And, indeed, The Last of England is a sui generis cinematic work that, unlike virtually every other film made in the history of cinema, is endowed with a trance-inducing essence that has the aesthetic dynamism to transfer viewers to various seemingly unconscious cerebral states. Needless to say, The Last of England makes for a psychoanalyst’s most sodden yet sensual wet-dream as it is a work that metaphysically expresses what mere literature is incapable of articulating; the raw and self-scathingly scrupulous vivid visual depiction of one artist’s torn, tragic, and tormented soul. Luckily, Jarman also wrote a book of the same name (later retitled Kicking the Pricks) to accompany The Last of England. Unlike the film, The Last of England book is a fairly literal and illuminating work where – in the tradition of Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida – Jarman discusses everything from his troubled relationship with his father (a Lancaster bomber pilot who suffered from depression due to his involvement with so much death during the Second World War) to the increasing disintegration of traditional English society, kultur, and art. As explained by his friends in the documentary Derek Jarman: Life as Art (2004), Jarman had a disaccording dichotomous perspective on England’s dramatic cultural shifts during the second of the twentieth century. Although a politically-active gay man with AIDS who welcomed the increasingly liberal views in regard to unconventional sexual persuasions, Jarman also felt that these social changes came at the price of the once-glorious traditional English society that he held so sacredly, henceforth making his films, most specifically The Last of England, all the more pertinent and potent today than when they were released decades ago as these cinematic works act as a cultural 'missing link" between the traditional 'land of the Angles' and the increasingly less English, technocratic multicultural England of today. While although an extremely personal work featuring the virtual dissolution of his childhood and the traditions that came with it (as portrayed in inter-spliced vintage home movie clips), The Last of England also depicts an entire nation of people who are plagued by terrorism, racial discord, substance abuse, nihilistic hedonism, and a deluge of ever escalating moral and culture decay, thus making for a wonderful post-Spenglerian nightmare sprinkled with nostalgia for a people and culture lost long ago.