In The Last of England, Derek Jarman’s memories, thoughts and fantasies are assembled in a collage of styles (quasi-documentary chronicle, home movies and video), to vent his fury at Thatcher’s England. The use of dream-like imagery, superimpositions and different colour hues express Jarman’s nostalgic yearning for the past, and the film has been compared to Humphrey Jennings’ poetic documentary Listen to Britain (1941), which hymned wartime Britain.
The Last of England is Jarman’s second film diary. In Jubilee (1978) he presented a 1970s England transformed by punk rebellion. The Last of England offers an apocalyptic vision of the nation’s future as a homophobic and repressive totalitarian state. The country’s sickness is mirrored by the grim landscapes of East London’s still-derelict docks – used near-contemporaneously by Stanley Kubrick in Full Metal Jacket (US/UK, 1987) to represent the horrors of the Vietnam War. England’s decline is manifested in the mental and physical disorder of its inhabitants: a naked man eating then vomiting up a cauliflower, Spring injecting himself with heroin.
A shaky hand-held camera evokes anxiety and paranoia, and the ever-present melancholy is expressed in the extracts from poems, including T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, monotonously intoned by narrator Nigel Terry. The feeling of displacement and confusion is further conveyed by rapid editing and unusual camera angles. An unsettling juxtaposition of images and sounds recalls Dante’s Inferno: a fireside danse macabre is intercut with dramatic images of shooting. Such images are counterpointed by Bach violin sonatas and 1980s disco. Skulls, fire and ashes embody death and destruction, while scenes of sex on a Union Jack and Spring masturbating subvert social conventions and suggest a country in a state of chaos and sordid decadence.
The breathtaking final sequence shows a bride mourning her executed husband. She dances on a beach, tearing her wedding dress apart, embodying the creative and destructive forces, the water and fire, that pervade the film. In the final shot, she departs the diseased land by boat – a scene reminiscent of Ford Madox Brown’s pre-Raphaelite painting which provided the film’s title. Profoundly influenced by Goya’s paintings and by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s grotesque allegory of Mussolini’s Italy, Salò (Italy/France, 1975), The Last of England mourns the loss of youth and hope and rails at a society grown sick and cruel. Despite continuing rejection by the mainstream, Jarman was here at the peak of his creative powers.