Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre) is transported forward in time by the occultist John Dee (Richard O'Brien) by the aid of the spirit guide Ariel (a character from William Shakespeare's The Tempest) whom he commands. Elizabeth arrives in the shattered Britain of the 1970s. Queen Elizabeth II is dead, killed in an arbitrary mugging, and Elizabeth I moves through the social and physical decay of the city observing the sporadic activities of a group of aimless nihilists, including Amyl Nitrite (Jordan), Bod (Runacre in a dual role), Chaos (Hermine Demoriane), Crabs (Nell Campbell), and Mad (Toyah Willcox).
Numerous punk icons appear in the film including Jordan (a Malcolm McLaren protégé), Toyah Willcox, Nell Campbell, Adam Ant, Hermine Demoriane and Wayne County. It features performances by Wayne County and Adam and the Ants. There are also cameo appearances by the Slits and Siouxsie and the Banshees. The film was scored by Brian Eno. The uncredited piece of music used in the 'Jordan's Dance' scene was written by Ludwig Minkus in 1884 for Act I of the revived ballet Giselle.
Beginning with a scene where John Dee summons the spirit Ariel for Queen Elizabeth I, the action moves to an anarchic present day, where law and order has broken down and punk gangs roam the streets, committing acts of murder and larceny. In one squat, Amyl Nitrate is instructing a group of young women —in so doing valourising the violent criminal activity of Myra Hindley—before she reminisces about her time as a ballet dancer and introduces the audience to Mad, Crabs, Chaos, Sphinx and Angel (two incestuous bisexual brothers) and Bod, a sex-hating anarchist. Bod has just strangled and killed Elizabeth II and stolen her crown.
From there the group move on to a café, where Crabs picks up a young musician named the Kid, Mad tears up some postcards and Bod attacks a waitress with a bottle of ketchup. Bod contacts impresario Borgia Ginz. On meeting Ginz, however, she is surprised to find Amyl performing a pastiche of "Rule Britannia". Sphinx and Angel establish a relationship with Viv, a young former artist, whom they take to meet Max, an ex-soldier. In exchange for sexual favours, Crabs takes the Kid to see Ginz, who auditions him and his band signs them up under the name "Scum." Sphinx and Angel try to talk the Kid out of this but he just laughs at their lecturing. Ginz is branching out into property management and has purchased 'abandoned' properties like Westminster Cathedral and Buckingham Palace, which are transformed into musical venues.
Meanwhile, Mad, Bod and Crabs asphyxiate Happy Days, one of Crabs' one-night stands, with red plastic sheeting and break into the flat of androgynous rock star Lounge Lizard whom Bod throttles to death. A fight breaks out at a disco session in St. Paul's Crypt between Kid and a policeman. After the gang all watch Kid's TV debut together, Viv and the three males all pay a visit to Max's bingo hall, where Violent police activity causes the death of Sphinx, Angel, and the Kid and two revenge attacks on the police officers responsible. One of them is castrated to death by Mad and Amyl; the other, who has just started an affair with Crabs, is blown up on his doorstep with a petrol bomb by Bod. Finally, Ginz takes the four women off to Dorset and signs a recording contract with them. Interspersed with these displays of contemporary anarchic violence, Dee, Ariel and Elizabeth try to interpret the signs of anarchic modernity around them, before they undertake a pastoral and nostalgic return to the sixteenth century at the film's end.Jenny Runacre – Queen Elizabeth I / Bod
Nell Campbell – Crabs (as Little Nell)
Toyah Willcox – Mad
Jordan – Amyl Nitrite
Hermine Demoriane – Chaos
Ian Charleson – Angel
Karl Johnson – Sphinx
Linda Spurrier – Viv
Jack Birkett – Borgia Ginz (as Orlando)
Jayne County – Lounge Lizard (as Wayne County)
Richard O'Brien – John Dee
Adam Ant – Kid
Helen Wellington-Lloyd – Lady-in-waiting
Claire Davenport – First Customs Lady
Barney James – Policeman
Lindsay Kemp – Cabaret performer
Gene October – Happy Days
David Brandon - Ariel (as David Haughton)
Siouxsie Sioux – Herself
Steven Severin – Himself
The film is heavily influenced by the 1970s punk aesthetic in its style and presentation. Shot in grainy colour, it is largely plotless and episodic. Location filming took advantage of London neighbourhoods that were economically depressed and/or still contained large amounts of rubble from the London Blitz.
The film had many critics in British punk circles. Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood manufactured a T-shirt on which was printed an "open letter" to Jarman denouncing the film and his misrepresentations of punk. Jarman described the project as "a film about punk" during pre-production, but later explained that it had a much broader thematic scope. The film is now considered a cult classic, and was released by the Criterion Collection.