Discussion of Derek Jarman's work tends to coalesce around his final years, which saw the decline of his health from AIDS, which would inevitably kill him, but during which time he strained to keep working and making films, videos, and other art, right up to his death in 1994. It's unavoidable that we should couch the most significant part of his filmography between when he learned that he'd contracted HIV (in 1986) and when he succumbed to AIDS, but it's also not inappropriate, since his work during these years was often defined by a temptation toward rage, stayed by a desire for beauty, poetry, and solace. In other words, Jarman deserved every ounce of his fury, but also exhibited heroism by insisting that there are wonders that cannot be extinguished.
The Last of England is nothing if not a maelstrom of conflicting emotional responses, set in the mold of “found” footage (newly shot by Jarman to render the effect) and 8mm home movies. Its inconsolable rage and bitterness is protean, chafing at the absurdities of Thatcher's England, but also at the wider dome of existence, man's inhumanity to man, and so on. This juggernaut can pass before the lens of Jarman's biography, or it can be anyone's audio-visual tirade. It is very, very English, but only insofar as we're talking about a dying empire, tipped by a feather into jackbooted fascism, as envisioned by writers and artists ranging from George Orwell to Alan Moore (and Pink Floyd between them). Jarman names his horror with sequences where the poor, huddled (and likely gay and/or punk) masses are bullied by a handful of masked men carrying automatic weapons—weapons they eventually use. Attempts at utopia amid decay, forever to be thwarted by agents of the will of the state.
There's also unfathomable mourning, equally everywhere-directed, and like everything else in The Last of England, it's often represented in stagings of pointed, unabashed symbolism or unfettered abstraction. Sets and setups recall Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith, anticipating Guy Maddin (among others), the actors wandering through wastelands and cheaply fabricated sets. Every scene contributes to a larger tapestry of apocalyptic decrepitude, taking place in exteriors and interiors defined by abandonment and condemnation. These places witness every act that society has made illicit (vandalism, scavenging, gay sex and sexuality, as well as extra-judicial killings, sanctioned by the state), thus transforming Jarman's collage into an anthropological act—an archaeological expedition on the present moment.
All the same, Jarman doesn't permit the viewer to identify which sights and sounds are “ugly” and “beautiful,” as the intermingling of opposing conditions is precisely the point: hard realism and kitsch, revulsion and adoration, compassion and contempt. Attempting to locate an unambiguous, declarative statement in The Last of England would be folly. It would be better to say that Jarman transmits his vision of 1980s England through a diverse body of emotional frequencies: sarcastic, bombastic, tender, or nostalgic, anything but indifferent or numb.
Most of The Last of England is staged found footage mixed with a small amount of Derek Jarman's home movies, all shot on 8mm stock; Kino's HD transfer of the result is more than passable, if, perhaps, not on the same level as Criterion's work with experimental filmmakers like Hollis Frampton or Stan Brakhage. The low resolution of 8mm makes it easy to conceal problems with posterization and interlacing. The stereo soundtrack is presented on the disc's only sound option, in DTS.
Naked as a forgotten man in a junk heap.
Rage, bitterness, sorrow, and beauty, all in unison against the dying of the light; Derek Jarman's poison love letter to England is presented in a passable HD transfer from Kino, in all its rag-and-bone glory.