The film is staged in a postmodern style, using a mixture of contemporary and medieval props, sets and clothing. (The date "1991" appears on a royal proclamation at one point.) The gay content of the play is also brought to the fore by Jarman, notably by adding a homosexual sex scene and by depicting Edward's army as gay rights protesters.
Once installed as king, Edward II summons his friend and lover, Piers Gaveston, to his side and showers him with gifts, titles and abiding love. Their relationship is fiery and passionate, but it is the focus of gossip and derision throughout the kingdom. Upon his return, Gaveston takes revenge on the Bishop of Winchester, who had been responsible for his banishment from England during the previous reign, by personally torturing him. Kent, Edward's brother, is the first to protest Gaveston's return. Many others feel the same way, including the Bishop of Winchester and Lord Mortimer, who is in charge of the army forces of the kingdom. Nevertheless, Edward defends his lover from his mounting enemies.
A pleasure-seeker, Edward is quite distracted from affairs of state, much to the distress and anger of the court (sombre men and women in business suits). Queen Isabella, Edward's French wife, vainly tries everything to win him back from his lover, but she is mercilessly rejected by her husband. Love-starved, Isabella turns to Gaveston, who inflames Isabella's desire by whispering obscenities in her ear, and then mocks her responsiveness.
The handsome, hedonistic and opportunistic Gaveston repels everyone except the King. His enemies join forces and threaten Edward with dethronment and exile; Edward is forced to comply with their wishes and sends Gaveston away. The lovers' separation is serenaded by Annie Lennox’s rendition of Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye".
The queen hopes that once Gaveston is away she could reconcile with her husband, but he rejects her once again. In a last effort to regain her husband's affection, she allows Gaveston to return. The king and his lover resume their relationship, but their enemies are ready to strike back.
Isabella and Mortimer, who becomes her lover, plan to rule the realm through Edward and Isabella's young son, the future Edward III. When Kent tries to save his brother, he is murdered by Isabella. The nobles are soon plotting to get rid not only of Gaveston but also the king. Mortimer, their leader, is a military man and practising sadomasochist who takes a grim pleasure in personally torturing Gaveston and the lovers' friend Spencer, who he addresses as "girl boy." Their torture takes place while there is a clash between the police and members of the British gay rights organisation Outrage.
After Gaveston and Spencer's assassinations, Edward, who has been thrown in a dungeon, is executed by impalement on a red-hot poker. This hideous fate is presented as a nightmare from which the imprisoned king awakens. The executioner, when he does arrive, tosses away his lethal weapon and kisses the man he was sent to kill.
Back in the castle, Mortimer and Isabella enjoy their triumph just briefly. The king's young son, Edward III, who all along has been neglected by both parents, witnessing their quarrels, has donned his mother's earrings and lipstick and, while listening to classical music on his Walkman, walks atop a cage that imprisons his mother and Mortimer.Steven Waddington as Edward II
Tilda Swinton as Isabella
Andrew Tiernan as Piers Gaveston
Nigel Terry as Mortimer
John Lynch as Spencer
Dudley Sutton as Bishop of Winchester
Jerome Flynn as Kent
Jody Graber as Prince Edward
Annie Lennox as The Singer
The film received positive reviews from critics. It currently holds a 100% "Certified Fresh" score on the review-aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. Rolling Stone called it "a piercing cry from the heart." and The Washington Post praised Jarman for "keeping the story streamlined and potently clear while retaining Marlowe's poetic period language". The Observer called it one of "Derek Jarman's most accomplished films". The film has been considered a classic example of New Queer Cinema.