Derek Jarman’s The Last of England: A Formal Dissection of a Sequence within the Film


Derek Jarman’s 1987 film The Last of England laments the death of society in a bleakly futuristic vision of post-Thatcherite Britain. With no dialogue except for the occasional news soundbite and the impressionistic narration of Nigel Terry, the film is dreamlike and arresting.

Marshall McLuhan claims, in his own terminology, that the cinema is a “Hot” medum —  one which “extends one single sense in high definition,” and one which “does not leave much to be completed by the audience.”

Conversely he describes television as a “cool” medium because the NTSC television image to which he referred was “visually low in data”. Aesthetically images were fuzzy and low in contrast, and the nature of the media it delivered — such as live news broadcasts — meant that there was room for the audience to interpret meaning, instead of being the passive receptors of a manipulative cinematic form.

The Last of England is a cinematic anomaly. The film was shot on Super-8, the lowest of low-definition film formats. It was then converted to U-Matic video, which is PAL broadcast standard. While not the same as the NTSC signal that McLuhan spoke of, it is very similar. It has a slightly lower frame rate (25 compared to 29.97) and a slightly better handling of colours but it remains, like Super-8, a low definition, inherently “cool” medium. Then came the transfer up to 35mm for cinema, which brings two levels of grain (the super 8 and the 35mm) as well as the fuzz and softness that comes with PAL. Add to this the extremities of the colourgrading in the film — “night blues, mauves and a burning orange reminiscent of London as painted by Turner” (O ‘Pray, 1996, pp156) — and we are looking at a work which is aesthetically, very much, “cool” media, despite being created for a “hot” environment. That I viewed it on a laptop, one would might assume, extends this — a”light-through” rather than “light-on” medium.

Jarman said of the film: “There’s no narrative, though there is a love story: it’s silent. There are no words in a movie camera. Someone put them there in the ’20s. The “cinema” was straight-jacketed, it took a nosedive.” (Jarman 1987, pp166) McLuhan would suggest that Jarman had similar feelings to Pudovkin and Eisenstein, who “denounced the sound film but considered that if sound were used symbolically and contrapuntally, rather than realistically, there would result less harm to the visual image.” (McLuhan 1964, pp 287)

In fact the film is far from silent — it has very detailed and intense sound design by Simon Turner, who came up with loose ideas during the edit and then executed the formal task after picture-lock.

I have chosen a particular sequence (top of post) for it’s rhythm and juxtapositions of motion. It is a short sequence, running at two minutes and thirty-eight seconds, but it comprises of twelve different “scenes” which are intercut. According to production designer Christopher Hobbs, Jarman has said that “a film is constructed in sequences, and you need 32 sequences to make a film — but these sequences are largely interchangeable.” Indeed, parts of these scenes also appear in other parts of the film as well as within this sequence.

Here is a formal separation of the twelve “scenes” so that they can be viewed uniquely, as loops. Why, you ask? I have no fucking idea, but I’m doing an MA so I have to think of something…