Tuesday, August 16, 2016

British History in Film | Edward II (1970)

Braveheart introduced us to Edward II, the weak prince who constantly disappointed his father, Edward Longshanks. Not being super concerned about historical accuracy, it added a couple of weird things to his story. First, it put him in a relationship with someone named Phillip who gets thrown out of a window by the elder Edward. It seems probable that Edward II was at least bisexual, but as far as we know, his dad never murdered any of his boyfriends.

An even stranger change though is how the movie more than implies that the first son of Edward II is actually the child of William Wallace. Learning that is a nice bit of comeuppance for Longshanks on his deathbed, but it's also a fantasy. In real life, Edward II's wife Princess Isabelle was about four years old when Wallace was fighting the English. Edward II would have been about 15.

But Braveheart does depict Edward's fondness for men, which leads nicely into Christopher Marlowe's play, Edward II. My first exposure to the play was Derek Jarman's 1991 film adaptation, but that was a challenging introduction. Jarman set the film in modern day, but includes lots of medieval props for reasons that 1991 me couldn't decipher. He also makes significant changes in order to turn the play's gay subtext into the main point. It's a fascinating take, but not the best way to be introduced to the story for those who don't already know it.

A better initiation is the Prospect Theatre Company's 1970 version starring very young Ian McKellen as the title character. It's a bare-boned production, but it's set in the proper time period and is a faithful presentation of the play. And of course McKellen makes it extremely watchable.

It's difficult to follow, though. Marlowe's play already condenses a ton of history into a rapid-fire sequence of events and the production's lack of set dressing makes it even more confusing. There aren't enough clues to help understand the passage of time or even a change of location. Fortunately, the actors help make it possible to follow the action. McKellen isn't the only one in the production who's worth watching. The cast is all very good and everyone keeps the dialogue understandable.

One of the most interesting characters - especially after watching Braveheart - is Queen Isabella. It's fascinating to think about Sophie Marceau's long-suffering version while watching Diane Fletcher in the Prospect version. Isabella begins the play more or less patiently enduring Edward and his obvious love for someone else, but she becomes less tolerant as time goes by. Ultimately, she takes a lover of her own and allies with him to overthrow and murder Edward.

At least, that's what she tries to do. The Prospect production of Marlowe's play makes it clear that Isabella succeeded, but Jarman's 1991 film goes a different direction. As does the mini-series, World Without End, based on Ken Follett's sequel to his novel Pillars of the Earth. But that's for our next post.

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