Year: 1977. Running time: 104 minutes. Color. Monaural. 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Directed by Derek Jarman. Starring Jenny Runacre, Nell Campbell, Ian Charleson, Adam Ant, and Richard O'Brien. From The Criterion Collection

Review by Joe Pettit, Jr.

In 1977, Great Britain was plagued by economic and political turmoil. The economic recession hovered at an all-time low and the unemployment rate skyrocketed. The war between the British Empire and the IRA seemed incessant. Foment and unrest manifested in the music of a new breed of unwashed youths with orange hair, ripped clothes, and nasty attitudes. They sneered "God save the Queen" in snotty voices while jubilantly proclaiming they had no future.

As Queen Elizabeth II ordered a year of celebrations honoring her Silver Jubilee (25th) anniversary since taking the throne, filmmaker Derek Jarman had the idea to capture his friends operating in their milieu, in particular the striking Jordan, who had gained Punk credibility from working in the Kings Row boutique run by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, the impresarios behind the Sex Pistols. Jarman's producers convinced him to expand his idea into a feature-length fictional film by incorporating ideas from his earlier unproduced film, The Angelic Conversation of John Dee. The resulting film, Jubilee (1978), recently released on DVD by Criterion, baffled mainstream and art house audiences alike. Furthermore, the film alienated British punk rockers, who interpreted the film as a lifeless, upper-crust exploitation of their dynamic movement. With the hindsight of twenty-five years, Jubilee is prophetic in its vision of an apocalyptic, noise-ridden future where chaos reigns and everyone ultimately sells out.

At its heart, Jubilee is a movie of ironic contrasts, a look through a glass darkly from England's Golden Elizabethan age towards the anarchic, economically and artistically desolate future embodied in Great Britain during Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee anniversary. Legendary alchemist, mage, and court astrologer John Dee (portrayed by Rocky Horror Picture Show's Richard O'Brien) grants Queen Elizabeth I's (Jenny Runacre) request to summon the angel Ariel to provide her with a glimpse into the future of her beloved country. What the two find completely astounds them. Expecting to see a logical extension of the glory and wonders of her tranquil empire, Elizabeth and Dee discover England blasted to rubble and ablaze with bonfires. Anarchy reigns. Roving girl gangs savagely attack any persons foolish enough to be caught walking alone, while the police coolly stand back laughing at the spectacle.

Within the first ten minutes of their vision, Queen Elizabeth II is murdered off-camera by sociopathic gang leader Bod (Jenny Runacre in a dual role) who then dons the purple royal crown. Most of the film revolves around the activities of Queen Bod's court -- which includes 1) Amyl Nitrate (Jordan), a punk intellectual whose impromptu history lessons provide much of the film's narration, 2) Mad (Toyah Willcox), a foot soldier whose cures for boredom usually include pyromania or thuggery, and 3) Crabs (Rocky Horror Picture Show's Little Nell), a talent scout with an insatiable sexual appetite. Hovering in the wings is the evil genius Borgia Ginz (Orlando), an impresario with an iron clad grip on all facets of the entertainment industry. He spouts Oscar Wildean aphorisms regarding the seemingly endless human capacity for selling out artistic principles for fifteen minutes of fame, punctuating each cynical delivery with bouts of hysterical laughter.

It's no guessing matter where Jarman's sympathies lie. His idyllic portrayal of the court of Queen Elizabeth I completely bypasses that era's very real social problems. However, he does make a compelling argument. Almost five hundred years later, the Elizabethan Age still resounds in our cultural imagination. From Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe to John Dee and Elizabeth I, the historical figures of the age still fascinate and inspire. It seemed that the magic and intrigue which filled the imagination of these people was in the very air they breathed. When compared to the cultural and societal vision offered up by the neutered royalty and bitter artists of the 1970s, Jarman finds that British society has become sterile, losing its way amidst piles of rubble and nonstop noise. There is no more magic, and no one has the patience for poetic experience.

It is no small wonder that Jubilee pissed off the Punks. Jarman dared to hold a poetic mirror up to 1977 and project where the widespread nihilism and anger would lead. With the streets ablaze in Brixton and Toxteth, even the gangs sell out to the moneymen in exchange for security and a gated community. The picture proved to be less than flattering -- but remarkably prescient of todays prefabbed "bad boys." In the words of Borgia Ginz, "they all sign up in the end, one way or another."

The Criterion Collection once again comes through in their DVD presentation of Jubilee. Notable extra features include excerpts from Jarman's scrapbook for the film, an insightful essay by Jarman biographer Tony Peake, a full-length version of Jordan's ballet dance around the bonfire featured in the film, and the documentary Jubilee: A Time Less Golden, made by Jarman regular Spencer Leigh. This documentary takes a fascinating look into Jarman's creative processes, examining the controversy surrounding Jubilee on its release and providing glowing appreciations of Jarman's work by his former collaborators. At the very least, this DVD release of Jubilee should inspire a positive re-appraisal of this idiosyncratic and beautiful film, if not a resurgence of interest in this unusual filmmaker's work.

Jubilee is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection. Director of photography Peter Middleton supervised the new high-definition digital transfer (which has also been enhanced for widescreen televisions). Special features: an original documentary on Jarman and Jubilee, including interviews with star Jenny Runacre and production designer Christopher Hobbs; ephemera from Derek Jarman's personal collection, including his scrapbook from the film and rare photos; and an original trailer. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.