The Last of England is Derek Jarman’s experimental and highly disturbing embodiment of a time at which, in his opinion, Britain was descending into chaos.
The film title originates from Ford Madox Brown’s painting of a couple in the midst of a seaward emigration to Australia. Though Jarman’s work is far more abstract, it takes from Brown’s painting the feeling of the need for flight in desperate circumstances.
The Last of England is characterised by a lack of clear narrative, constantly relying on a series of jump-cuts between increasingly chaotic, aesthetically post-apocalyptic events. As these culminate, their achievement really is a feeling of complete disturbance.
A man strapping up for a hit in the corner of a derelict room, another fornicating on top of a classical painting, men masked distinctly like the IRA, reoccurring motifs of fire and desolation, shadowy tribal-style dancing in overly saturated red light, a screaming bride slashing her wedding dress, and shots upon shots of destruction, despair and dereliction.
These images, set against a contrapuntal score of what sounds like a B-movie horror film soundtrack intermeshed with distressing buzzing, heightened everyday sounds and World War II air-raid sirens, certainly allow Jarman to hit home with his vision of England coming to a crashing end.
However, despite all of his experimental effort, the most captivating and message-enforcing scene is perhaps the most simplistic of the whole film. Huddled in a small boat are a group of dirty-faced people, wrapped in blankets and packed in like refugees, sailing towards what seems like even more despair and hopelessness. The camera takes some beautiful facial close-ups, the world darkened behind them, and their eyes staring obliquely into the camera. The only sound is the simple singing of a folkish, womanly voice.
By the end, it’s good to be able to look out the window and see that England isn’t quite such a wasteland, teeming with fire and squalor. Though I’m sure through some people’s eyes it may seem that way, Jarman’s at least.
The Last of England, dir. Derek Jarman (1988, UK)