The Past Dreamed the Future Present: Derek Jarman’s ‘Jubilee’

Jubilee Movie Essay - 1978 Derek Jarman Film

“History interests me. It’s so intangible, you can weave facts anyway you like.” — Amyl Nitrate, Jubilee 

Derek Jarman’s work — that is, the work of painter, writer, gardener, gay rights activist and enfant terrible of British avant-garde filmmaking — pushed the boundaries of British cinema, signified by experimental techniques and an iconoclast ethos. Jarman worked on the periphery of the film industry, but his films still pertinently managed to mirror, whether consciously or unconsciously, the changing social and political landscape that engulfed England at the time. Since set designing on films like The Devils (1971) for Ken Russell, Jarman began his filmmaking career with a series of super 8mm experimental short films that were formally liberating, reflecting a more socially open-minded 1960s. His debut feature film, Sebastiane (1976), about the homoerotic martyr, sustained this by shedding light (perhaps for the first time in film history) on a positive and progressive representation of homosexuality.

Ten years later, though, in the heart of an oppressive Thatcherite Britain, Jarman would use his work to criticise hierarchy; his 1985 film, The Angelic Conversation, reflected on homosexuality as entrenched in a hostile, violent landscape. Meanwhile, The Last of England (1987) can be said to be Jarman’s most explicit attack on Thatcherism through its near apocalyptic vision of London and its depiction of a rapidly declining England. In the throes of HIV, too, near the end of his life, Jarman’s final few films meditated on his deteriorating health, offering beautiful elegies to those who suffered or died from AIDs, most fittingly reflected in his avant-garde swansong Blue (1993). 

Jarman’s revolutionary work is deeply rooted in a sense of time and place, as his films often turn to the past as a means of exploring and interrogating the present. Historical icons are utilised in The Tempest (1979), Caravaggio (1986), Edward II (1991) and Wittgenstein (1993) as a means of commenting on the present zeitgeist, while his more contemporary works — The Last of England, The Garden (1990) or Blue, for example — are tinged with a remembrance of a time lost. Jarman’s disregard for historical accuracy also is used to probe and question established narratives, using the past as a gateway into rethinking the present while stamping history with a queer presence. His frequent use of super 8mm photography added a tactility to his films, too, giving them a texture that was more akin to home video, therefore using memory as a respite from the harsh and hostile landscapes he depicted. Jarman balances radical filmmaking with a traditionalist, nostalgic gaze of England; his affiliation with gardening, a passion borne early in his childhood, also leads to the supposition that his work is pervaded with a nostalgic quality, often using the English countryside as an Eden-like image.

Jarman’s navigation of history and England’s political sphere is brought to a magical, almost prophetic coalescence in his second feature film, Jubilee (1978). The director frames the narrative around a journey told from the perspective of England’s past (Queen Elizabeth I), a time travelling excursion to the great unknown (England’s future) featuring iconography of Jarman’s present (punk). The filmmaker once said of the narrative structure that “the past dreamed the future present” where it abridges one Elizabethan era with another, as Jarman juxtaposes England’s golden era under Elizabeth I with the succeeding Elizabethan monarch in the present. In keeping with Jarman’s radical lineage, Queen Elizabeth I is transported by Shakespeare’s Ariel to London in 1977 and the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee — the film’s title, too, is similarly denunciative as the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” This was a period of general political, social and economic crisis, and Jarman portrays this through a near-apocalyptic London setting, making his present seem like a terrifying faux-future. The time travel narrative framework in Jubilee allows for Jarman to collapse on a historical timeline, bringing past, present and future into one magical but scary cinematic space.

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Jubilee Movie Film

The beginning of Jubilee places viewers in the heart of England’s past, adopting tropes used in many British Heritage films, as Jarman opens in the 1500s with the sound of chirping birds superimposed over the image of a pastoral and tranquil garden. This is Queen Elizabeth I’s estate (thus another of Jarman’s historical characters): painterly, beautiful and innocent. Ultimately, this brief pastoralist image is a highlight of Britain’s once green and pleasant legacy, opening with the symbol that the past, here, is idyllic. By setting up the film within the garden space, Jarman attempts to reclaim a lost landscape, one that is later juxtaposed against London’s derelict urban docklands where green spaces are hard to come by.

Green spaces are only fleetingly returned to later on in Jubilee. In one particular scene, three characters visit a friend’s garden in hope to revel in a floral paradise, only to find the garden made up of artificial carnations — “what a crazy garden, Max,” says Viv (Linda Spurrier). Unlike the bucolic past, London is seen to have become a series of concrete high-rises and destitute neighbourhoods where even historic landmarks like Buckingham Palace or Westminster Cathedral have been renovated into vulgar musical venues. Queen Elizabeth I’s estate is one of pleasant birdsong and sun-kissed lawns, though, and a dwarf (played by the once infamous Sex Pistols follower Helen Wellington-Lloyd) parades and plays in the garden with three large dogs. This tranquillity is only briefly interrupted, however, by a distant, almost unheard thunder that is a foreshadowing of the distant images Queen Elizabeth is to witness.

Among the burning streets and rubble of London in 1977, the Queen’s first encounter of her “shadow” England (as described by Ariel) sees Queen Elizabeth II get mugged and murdered somewhere in Deptford by the female punk gang leader Bod, who leaves the victim’s body with a sardonic cackle, stealing her crown jewels and thus proclaiming herself as the new Queen. This flippant treatment of Queen Elizabeth is indicative of Jarman’s distaste for authority and royalty, and it’s a stark and alarming image. Bod, though, like Queen Elizabeth I, is played by Jenny Runacre, thus producing a doppelganger effect beyond the Queen Elizabeth/Queen Elizabeth double. Bod’s stealing of the crown jewels becomes a duel symbol, then, as it not only represents Bod as emblematic of the detested Queen Elizabeth II but also represents a new, radical change in monarchy that is now more vehement, murky and unclear. Queen Elizabeth I’s reaction is naturally one of confusion and shock as her once green England has turned into a murderous, dirty wasteland. 

In keeping with Ariel’s prophetic description of 70s England as a “shadow,” Bod is dressed in black suit clothing, her breasts occasionally and flippantly exposed, an antithesis to the regal, dressed in excess, and doted on Elizabeth I. The use of the doppelganger, here, seems like another technique to draw comparisons between past and present where Bod’s blasé attitude and propensity for violence is one that contrasts Elizabeth I’s era of general peace, prosperity and creative enlightenment. This palimpsestic temporal overlapping pushes Jubilee into an almost science fiction space, but it is Jarman’s very use (or re-appropriation) of historical iconography that grounds the narrative, making it feel even the more (eerily) real.

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Jubilee Movie Film

Jarman also grounds his narrative through his frequent use of punk iconography. One early scene plays out like a history lesson as Amyl Nitrate, one of the leading gang figures, gives a lecture to young punk gang members, reading aloud her self-penned new history book on England and its “collapse.” Shot in tableau, Amyl looks directly down the camera as if viewers are also young, fledging learners of the new age. Amyl is played by Jordan, then punk icon and Vivien Westwood associate, with her bleach-blonde hair pulled upwards almost crown-like while a marked, red pattern colours her cheeks and eyes. She is referred to as “England’s Glory” by her friend Mad (played by West Midlands punk-to-be, Toyah Willcox), which also confuses the “new Queen” concept — this is truly a time of hierarchical perplexity. 

This scene is indicative of the DIY aesthetic associated with the 70s punk movement, as it progresses almost like amateur dramatics while filmed in Jarman’s own dockside studio apartment. Jubilee’s cast is a series of close friends, too, and Jordan even appeared in one of Jarman’s early shorts — a film that is re-edited and makes a reappearance here. It is this collaged approach to filmmaking that makes Jubilee a keystone of punk cinema as opposed to its cast’s close association to the punk movement. But despite Jubilee’s punk reputation, the dystopian dockland landscape is revealing of the contempt Jarman had for the anarchic cultural landscape that engulfed England at the time. Jarman even once brazenly called punks “petit bourgeois art students, who a few months ago were David Bowie and Bryan Ferry look-alikes — who’ve read a little art history and adopted some Dadaist typography and bad manners” — to Westwood’s dislike. 

Jarman also sheds doubt on the the gang’s morality through their frequent and ill-justified outbursts of violence. The Queen, once again, acts as a bystander as her enlightened journey is re-introduced by the sound of a metronome. Bod and her followers murder the rock star Lounge Lizard (played by Jayne County of Wayne County & the Electric Chairs) — “a great chill embraceth this place,” the Queen responds. Here, she attempts (but fails) to understand the anarchic signs that she is confronted with, pleading with the spirit Ariel for answers. The Queen’s disillusionment from her surroundings is heightened when she refers to her journey as a transportation away from her “dear England.” Despite Lounge Lizard’s garden-like decorations — dated, flowery wallpaper; a sickly, verdant green settee; artificial plants — the Queen still asserts that this vision of England is not England at all but someplace elsewhere. Jarman even slyly uses the Wayne County song “Paranoia Paradise” as Lounge Lizard claims that paradise is murderous — “just ask Adam and Eve,” he sings, only to be ironically murdered by the rebellious, punk doctrines he follows. Thus, Jarman plays with another juxtaposition, one that is between punk and paradise. The use of Queen Elizabeth I within this setting further associates her with moral good, and her regal costume stands out against the artificial apartment setting and acts as another symbol for a glorious lost age, whereas England’s once green pastorality has been reduced to tacky furnishing and sickly decoration.

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Jubilee Movie Film

Jubilee’s final scene aptly takes the narrative full circle with Queen Elizabeth I and her alchemical advisor, John Dee (Richard O’Brien), returning to rural Elizabethan England along the Dorset Coast at Dancing Ledge. Once again, Jarman presents the pastoral England of the past that harshly contrasts the concrete of 70s London. This return to past England as a concluding image thus accentuates England’s once celebrated position and the need for change in England’s present. Here, the Queen recollects her own past and reflects on her England’s natural beauty ( “the roar of the surf on the shingles [is a] marvellous sweet music”). Unlike the hectic anarchy of the present, this England is in repose, as the coast is unchanging; the sea is always coming and going, dancing backwards and forwards, ultimately unaltered by England’s industrial progress.

Jarman’s mix of time, history, memory, fantasy and dreams in Jubilee is ultimately a hopeful warning for the future. Jarman is an optimist — the garden grows, after all. His Blakean return to pastoral England is just one of many techniques used as an indictment of industrial progressivity and the political landscape of the present. But while Jubilee ends on a more hopeful note, little would prepare Jarman for the decade that was to follow the Queen’s Silver Jubilee of 77. Eventually, he would go on to use a similar narrative framework 10 years later in The Last of England that extends London’s derelict landscape into something much more damning and apocalyptic. Notably, in The Last of England, Jarman also uses his father’s home videos as a respite from the oppressive totalitarian landscape emblematic of 80s Thatcherism. Thus, even here, he was still grappling with his nostalgic reflection of the past and his displacement in the present. Ideas surrounding displacement and nostalgia permeated Jarman’s career and can be seen in Sebastiane, Caravaggio, The Garden and Blue, too. But it is in Jubilee’s revolutionary and prophetic style and design, near the outset of the director’s own cinematic journey, that brought the personal and the political into a coalescence and definitely holds a sense that Jarman was dreaming the future present.

Edwin Miles (@eaj_miles) is a filmmaker, screenwriter and documentarian from the West Midlands, United Kingdom. Now based in London, Edwin’s experimental work reflects on ideas of family and memory, home and displacement. His favourite filmmakers include Derek Jarman, David Lynch and Kazuhiro Sôda.