Ask any citizen of a commonwealth country about the monarchy, past or present, and you’re sure to get a strong opinion. It seems as though there’s no middle ground regarding the royal family, as people are either very much in support or against the topic. But give them a chance to see Derek Jarman’s “Jubilee” and then ask them about the monarchy, and their answers may change quite a bit.
“Jubilee” opens with Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre) instructing her court alchemist to prepare a brew that’ll transport them 400 years into the future so the queen can see how history-to-be will unfold. What she sees is far from pretty: London is a dystopian wasteland, far from what it actually is today, and has been replaced with the lawlessness of the Wild West. Everybody has been pretty much left to their own devices, with perhaps the most startling image being the Church of England used as a strip club.
It was England’s first punk film, and it came courtesy of a filmmaker who would quickly become renowned for a brash filming style filled with frenetic energy and images, and a deeply personal interpretation to the events taking place around him.
Interestingly, while “Jubilee” was a punk film (the movie’s aesthetic is quite grainy, and there’s more of a focus on images rather than plot), it actually appears more like Jarman’s commentary on what he viewed the punk culture to be rather than a movie made by a punk director. Jarman certainly held some of the beliefs associated with the punk culture, such as those placed on the left-wing side of the ideology spectrum, but there’s a nagging sense throughout the movie that we’re watching an observation rather than a living embodiment of the times.
What little plot there is focuses on the antics of a gang of nihilists: Bod (Runacre, again), Crabs (Nell Campbell), Mad (Toyah Willcox), Amyl Nitrate (Pamela Rooke), and Chaos (Hermine Demoriane). Crabs meets an apathetic man named Kid (Adam Ant) and falls for him instantly, but he’s more content to lay on his stomach and mutter a couple words here and there about his lack of direction for the future than he is to reciprocate Crabs’s affections. However, Kid does soon find a future, thanks to Crabs introducing him to media mogul Ginz (Jack Birkett), who takes him under his wing and renames him “Scum”.
The plot isn’t the most important part of “Jubilee”, not nearly as much as Jarman’s use of music, how it contributed to the punk culture, and the anarchic tendencies that circulated wildly around England in the late ’70s and ’80s. And while the music isn’t quite a central part of the movie, it permeates it so thoroughly you can’t shake its impact from it. Hearing songs from the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Suzi Pinns lends an authoritative voice to “Jubilee” that underscores the “anti-everything” sentiment that the punk culture was all about.
It’s a film that seems like it’d be the love child of “A Clockwork Orange” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, if the two ever decided to merge together and create one movie. The future, according to Derek Jarman and paraphrasing Thomas Hobbes, appears to be nasty, brutish and short.
“Jubilee” screened at TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of Queer Pagan Punk: The Films of Derek Jarman.