Penda’s Fen

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Filmmaker Alan Clarke’s reputation was built on works known for their stark realism. Clarke’s films are typified as emotionally violent character portraits that are critical of British institutions. Films like Scum (1979), Made In Britain (1982) and Elephant (1989) find their poetry in the harshness and brutality of the social outsider. Penda’s Fen, despite its dreamy imagery and surrealism, tackles the same themes as Clarke’s works of realism.

Penda’s Fen commits to the kind of experimental narrative filmmaking pioneered by Ken Russell’s films for the BBC in the sixties. Penda’s Fen isn’t so much a straight forward narrative as it is a meditation on identity in the face of national and theological institutions. Penda’s Fen is a work of resistance to conformity whose poetry exists not just in the mundane, but the shared fantasies behind it. Penda’s Fen is Alan Clarke’s The Last Of England (1986).

Like Jarman’s 16mm epic, Penda’s Fen equates latent homosexuality with the earthy paganism that persists in British culture despite the prevalence of Christian doctrine. Stephen (Spancer Banks) confronts his homosexuality within the social complex of school and church where homosexuality can only exist in secret. The composer Elgar gives Stephen an emotional voice while pagan images and concerns with nature provide a kind of kinship for the boy physically and mentally.

The apparitions of Elgar and King Penda represent Stephen’s repressed nature and give it its expression. Penda’s Fenn essentially internalizes the conflict in The Wicker Man (1973) within the character of Stephen. And although Clarke is hardly a surrealist, his investment in outsider characters gives him a unique insight into the character of Stephen that grounds even the most fantastic images in the internal life of the character.