Made entirely of striking imagery that arrests the imagination and eventually the soul, 'The Last of England' is a devastating, terrifyingly dystopic vision of the future. A dark, deeply personal journey for director Derek Jarman, not only because he fuses private family videos with furiously conservative, fascist depictions of a world run amok, but also because the film is his prophetic, semi-narrative delusion which grew from a deeper appreciation for his own mortality. He was diagnosed HIV-positive the year before. The title is in reference to Ford Madox Brown's Victorian painting about British citizens immigrating to the New World risking their chances for a better life outside of their own country.
Seeing as how the film is completely open to interpretation, the title could also be taken to mean the end of one's culture and a nation's responsibility to its own people. This is a country ravaged and spoiled from within, by its own hands and the exploitive greed of the wealthy elite, not some imagined outside enemy or "Other." It is Jarman's harsh and also somewhat desperate condemnation of Margaret Thatcher's reign in the 1980s, imagining to the extreme the damaging effect a conservative view has on personal liberty and the well-being of the citizenry. The future is a military state that's bankrupt both economically as well as morally, fraught with severe impoverishment and endless uncertainty.
The seemingly arbitrary assortment of images appear intentionally haphazard and purposeless, expressing a hindered life surrounded by emptiness and totally immersed in its own filth of meaninglessness. This substandard existence of nihilism commences with the perversely-satisfying destruction of art, and for some unexplained reason, particularly the art of the Neoclassical/Romantic period. Perhaps, it is signaling the end of the traditional modes for understanding art and in doing so, bringing attention to its self as willing accomplice. This is accompanied by the voice of Nigel Terry reading lines of poetry that lack order and structure, again harkening back to the film as the art of annihilation.
The experimental music, which ranges from semblances of Throbbing Gristle, Coil, SPK and Einstürzende Neubauten to the passionately evocative minimalism of Philip Glass, participates in these vivid portraits of chaos which are as enchantingly beautiful as they are bewilderingly disquieting. In one scene, a man dressed like a scarily deranged faun or satyr performs a feverish dance inside an abandoned, decaying building to the tune of frenetic industrial music mixed with a calming piano melody. The carefree life and spirit of nature these sorts of mythological creatures are commonly associated with are a twisted distortion of a former, possibly greater era, similar to the way in which Jarman uses family videos suggesting a happier epoch ignorant of a ruinous future.
Derek Jarman's 'The Last of England' is the ultimate in visual art that attains the level of film narrative, a hauntingly moving piece of poetry that's difficult to describe but inspires endless discussion and interpretation. It's a collection of desultory images which imagine a catastrophically dystopic future, like seeing someone's dream come alive with erratic ideas we try to make sense of but are ultimately incomprehensible, thus keeping the film always elusive. We could argue it's more like a nightmare, especially to anyone wanting to quickly dismiss Jarman's efforts, but never are such phantasmagoric grotesqueries also so poignantly striking and eloquently stunning. A very young Tilda Swinton also stars as a blushing bride disturbed by shattered desires for happiness.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber brings 'The Last of England' to Blu-ray under the distributor's "Kino Classics" label. Housed inside a normal blue keepcase with reversible cover art, the Region A locked, BD25 disc goes straight to the main menu with full-motion clips and the minimalist music playing in the background.
Filmed entirely with 8mm cameras, it's really no surprise this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode of 'The Last of England' looks less than perfect, nothing remotely close to the standards of Blu-ray. The picture is blurry and generally ugly. But considering the intentional photography of Cerith Wyn Evans, Christopher Hughes, Richard Heslop and the film's director Derek Jarman, this vision of the future is supposed to be dreadful, miserable and pretty much repulsive.
In that respect, the 1.66:1 image is a grainy mess but faithful to its source with a dreary color palette that's over-saturated in some scenes or completely drained in others. Shadows are overwhelming, obscuring not only the finer details in the background but also in the foreground during several sequences. Contrast and brightness, however, are well-balanced and rather excellent, all things considered, with strong, deep blacks and accurate grayscale. The transfer on the whole is actually fairly pristine, rarely showing any age-related artifacts like scratches, fading or dirt. While not the sort for demoing one's HDTV, this high-def presentation is true to the intentions of the filmmakers and looks great from that respect.
The DTS-HD Master Audio stereo soundtrack makes a much stronger impression than the video, particularly in the original score of Simon Fisher-Turner. The experimental and often creepily haunting music spreads across the entire soundstage with a great deal of warmth and fidelity. The lossless mix exhibits plenty of clarity detail with a demanding sense of presence and room-penetrating dynamics. While not at all commanding, the low-end is robust nonetheless and responsively accurate with excellent acoustical depth.
Off-screen effects are convincing, broadening the soundfield with imaging that's actively engaging. Other atmospherics keep the film continuously active. Silence also plays an important role, used at specific moments to generate fear and dread. The few bits of dialogue, mostly from Nigel Terry's narration, are precise and lucidly distinct, making this a terrific high-rez track.
This is a bare-bones release.
Derek Jarman's 'The Last of England' is the ultimate in visual art that attains the level of film narrative, a hauntingly moving piece of poetry that's difficult to describe but inspires endless discussion and interpretation. It's a dark, deeply personal journey for the director, a devastating dystopic vision of the future which also functions as a condemnation of Margaret Thatcher's conservative reign in the 1980s and the complete loss of personal liberty. The Blu-ray arrives with strong, or as good as could be imagined from an 8mm source, picture quality and a better audio presentation. Unfortunately, the package comes without a single bonus feature, but Jarman's fans will want to pick this up nevertheless.