on June 30, 1999
I was dragged, kicking & screaming, to this film the first time I saw it. Staggeringly enough, I wound up being utterly captivated. While the film most closely resembles a fantasia on themes from Shakespeare's play, its spirit is so at one with the original I don't think anyone but the most literal-minded purist could possibly object. With appallingly limited means, but a virtually limitless visual imagination, Jarman creates a true world of wonder. There are moments of stunning beauty throughout -- Miranda's vision of herself as a child, Ferdinand dragging himself naked from the sea and staggering, half-drowned, along the shore -- and magnificent character choices -- Karl Johnson's still, sad-faced Ariel, Jack Birkett's egg-sucking, North Country Caliban, Heathcote Williams' youthful, vigorous, anarchic Prospero. All crowned, however, by an indescribably joyous "wedding masque" -- a loopy sailors dance followed by Elizabeth Welch sweeping in, all in gold, to sing (what else?)"Stormy Weather" as the entire cast practically melts in bliss. Only certain segments of Fellini's "The Clowns" have ever made me catch my breath the way I did repeatedly during this film. Made on a shoestring, this film is a triumph of wit & imagination. I tear up just thinking about it.
on December 11, 1999
This low budget movie retains Shakespeare's language and some startling as well as disturbing interpretations of his play. Prospero's cave is a gothic mansion. Ariel is a deadpan, rather grim butler ala Joel Grey in Cabaret. Caliban resembles an escaped lunatic complete with maniacal laughter. Nevertheless all the characters despite their departure from more traditional depictions are well acted and worth watching. Miranda in particular has more brains and pluck in this production than the simpering waif she is often portrayed to be. The play drags on where Jarmon cut a lot of the poetry in favor of more scenes of the characters traipsing about the mansion. Such scenes become monotonous about halfway through the movie. Film is unrated but contains several scenes of full frontal nudity as well as a particularly disturbing vision of an adult Caliban suckling a nude, obese Sycorax. As a teacher of English, seleced scenes were worth showing to my ninth grade class but the film was too monotonous, and contained too much perversity to show in its entirety.
on August 4, 2003
Ken Russell's designer on The Devils and Savage Messiah, the late Derek Jarman, made one of my favorite movies out of Shakespeare's most fanciful, yet most forgiving, play. Jarman makes a virtue of his tiny budget, having learned much from his former director about how to stretch one: the shadows, fireplaces, dust and antique clutter of Stoneleigh Abbey make a cozy and believable home in exile for Prospero, for whom "my library was dukedom enough," and for his fond daughter Miranda, who dances and play-acts around the vast, shabby manor like any imaginative child who hasn't known anything else, nor any reason to be ashamed of it. The mood is intimate and vespertine (in the Bjork sense); and for once, clutter is not the symptom of a lowlife or a loser, but the habit of a wistful, brilliant man absorbed in his studies and contemplation. For this alone, I recommend the film to anyone who ever felt like an innocent exile, a misunderstood artist or dreamer.
I also recommend it if you enjoy radical approaches to Shakespeare. Jarman's vision succeeds nearly everywhere, aided by superb casting. Hippie-hairy Heathcote Williams and the pleasantly zaftig Toyah Willcox are a warm and very appealing father and daughter, the ectomorphic Karl Johnson an Ariel with his own dreams to dream when not subduing resentment at his slavery to Prospero, and the bald, lisping, leering Jack Birkett nearly stealing the movie as an alarming, grotesque Caliban whose own wide-eyed pleasure in the "thousand twangling instruments" of the isle, with its "sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not" is as strangely winning as his hostility and vulgarity have been repulsive. Jarman's customary homoerotic elements work well and add another dimension to the play, as he contrasts Caliban's baseness not with Ariel's loftier sensibilities but with Miranda's moral innocence; while Miranda's *sexual* innocence is contrasted with Ariel's resignation to postponing his own desires, shown when he enchants and sings over the totally naked Ferdinand but otherwise leaves him alone. Stephano and Trinculo are flamboyantly queer, donning masks and costumed frippery not, like other characters, to symbolize dissembling in a straight society, but in drunken frolic as they plot to overthrow Caliban's master. (This is how Jarman delivers what an earlier reviewer here felt was missing, the "alternative realities.") Jarman's tone of melancholy lifting culminates in musical comedy star Elisabeth Welch's rendition of "Stormy Weather". It works.
The play is heavily cut, but could have benefited from more cutting, as Caliban is not made to look in any way fishlike, but Stephano and Trinculo still talk as though he is; Prospero looks forward to going home, where "every third thought shall be my grave" even though the actor was only 38; and Miranda's exclamation "O brave new world, that has such people in it!" sounds ridiculous when referring to the underrehearsed chorus line of rather fey sailors doing a silly dance that goes on too long. Representing Prospero's servant spirits with dwarves works fine, except Jarman's technique is not skillful enough to convey the menace of their assault on Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian. Jarman's technique would fully mature in his film of Edward II.
Although it was praised by English critics, The Tempest is an obscure little foreign art film, and has not been remastered in any way. The "extras" include the original presskit text, plus three short films that look like static landscape shots in Super8mm, and are of no interest except to Jarman scholars.
This is a very strong re-imagining of Shakespeare's Tempest. Like Ken Russell (with whom Jarman served as an apprentice on a number of films), Jarman has a natural interest in and affinity for English history & literature and an equal interest in and affinity for camp which is skeptical of and often parodies traditions that it nonethless adheres to and upholds. As much of an iconoclast as Ken Russell and Derek Jarman seem to be they never stray far from the acknowledged masterpieces of literature and the way these masterpieces orient us toward the world; what they add, however, is an element of camp (or play, or polymorphous perversion, or myriad-mindedness) which draws attention to the restrictions that class and gender and race place on individuals or social actors "playing" at any given time in history. But this is, of course, what the greatest literature has always done--shown the arbitrary bounds and laws by which men and women delimit their lives. In this way the greatest literature has always been iconoclastic and Russell and Jarman fit into English tradition as well as Shakespeare and Marlowe, Byron and Shelley, Lawrence and Woolf.
In Jarman's production there is little left of the once great Prospero but a desire to be avenged. In his mind the world wronged him and he will not be at peace with it until he sets it right again. The irony is that in seeking to set the world aright he enslaves others (Ariel and Caliban) and simply perpetuates the chain of wrongdoing that he is trying to break. The tragedy of the play is that Prospero knows that despite his efforts he really cannot make men act against their natures and that despite brief lapses of peace (occasioned by art) men will always resume their contest for power. But like many of Shakespeare's plays this is not wholly a tragedy nor wholly a comedy and so one moment we may be, along with Ariel, lamenting mans tragic fate and the next minute, along with Ariel, laughing at it. Most productions of The Tempest seem to favor either the tragic or comic element, but what Jarman does is not imbue the entire play with one mood but imbue individual characters with one or another, comic or tragic, mood. So while Prospero is imbued with a brooding & wistful melancholy that is wholly appropriate to his age and experience, his daughter Miranda is imbued with a sense of possibility and wonder that is wholly appropriate to her age and experience. The beauty of the play is that each character really inhabits their own version of the island, and lives within their own desires (or fears, for one could argue that what Caliban really fears is not having someone to serve for this would mean taking responsibility for his own reality). Of course some people might be put off by the fact that Jarman also allows each character to have their own sexuality. The campy ending, I might add, just underlines the unbridgable gulf that exists between art (where man experiences a measure of freedom and joy) and life (where man must live according to the decorums of the state.
Jarman's eccentric cast works very well at bringing to life Shakespeare's characters and themes and enlivening them with Jarman's visual style. If Ken Russell was the perfect artist of the early 1970's in that he seemed to glorify in the fashionable excess of the age, then Jarman is perhaps the perfect late seventies/early eighties artist that seems to glorify in the excesses of character and sexuality while also realizing that those excesses/eccentricities are allowed only in the world of art and that society as a whole is not that permissive or playful. This would explain the paradoxical melancholy of Jarman's artist-angels-visionaries; they are transcendent creatures but they are, nonethless, always trapped in society and in time.
The DVD includes three silent bonus shorts from 1971, 1972, & 1973 respectively. They are art student pieces that reveal the visionary yearnings of this essentially romantic and thus eternally melancholy artist.
on September 18, 2001
I really wanted to like this production, and it definitely has its moments: the film is quite stylish and certainly provocative and uninhibited. Nevertheless, I am in something of a hurry to express my dismay on a number of fronts. A very important part of understanding and appreciating Shakespeare is to grasp his vision of the magical and mystical realms. The sprite-inhabited forest of "Midsummer Night's Dream" and the transformative enchantment of Arden forest in "As You Like It" are indicative of the Bard's far-reaching insight involving alternate perspectives and, yes, alternate realities. Here lies much of the abiding richness and charm of the plays, especially the comedies. I believe that Prospero and Ariel are intended to participate and represent the "Brave New World" of these realities. Thus, these characters necessarily will fall quite a bit short of expectation when they are portrayed as adynamic, dull, and manifestly unwise. The sad result is a production that lacks "spirit" and is incapable of achieving a desired goal of enchantment and upliftment. What we are left with instead is a "dance of the sailors" and a curious rendition of "Stormy Weather" -- far from satisfying, in contrast with other productions I have seen. As for the Caliban character, he needs to be presented as earthy and brutish, yes, but not, I think, maniacal. I was also puzzled about his being portrayed as being in his fifties (or sixties) when simple mathematics, not to mention tradition, would suggest a much younger creature.
on May 25, 2014
First of all, this movie is a feast for the eyes. I love it when directors allow insight into the characters by placing those characters in settings where you can gain awareness into what drives them and makes them who they are.
And then, the characters! Prospero is as mad as a sack full of bats, but he's a genius, a philosopher, a whiz of a wizard and a tender-hearted father. Miranda is impossibly lovely, in a quirky, punky way that made me think of what might have happened if Stevie Nicks and Sid Vicious had had a child together. She's part ballerina, part street punk, part child and part woman, standing right on the brink of finding her soul mate. Honestly, this production has the only Miranda, other than the recent Tempest directed by Julie Taymor, who doesn't appear to be a one-dimensional figure from central casting. And this Caliban, although not costumed like the typical "monster" in so many stage and screen productions, is easily the creepiest, spookiest Caliban even.
I can't give this production five stars because I deplore all the nudity. In artistic vision, I can admire the use of nudity, particularly with Ferdinand when he struggles, dazed and nude, out of the sea. His vulnerability and loneliness, when he huddles for warmth on a pile of hay near a fireplace with a cheerfully crackling fire, is really very moving. However. I'm an English teacher, and as much as I'd like to share Jarman's genius with my classes, we can only watch the exposition, just up to the part of Ferdinand's full frontal emergence from the waves. It's really a terrible disappointment.
So! Watch it for your own enjoyment and admire Derek Jarman's genius. We lost him too soon.
on September 12, 2012
Actually, it seems that the complete name of the film, according to the artwork on the Blu-ray's cover, is "Derek Jarman's Adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest." And I shall begin by saying that if you are a Shakespeare fan, you may enjoy what veteran English director Derek Jarman did with the play. As for yours truly, after struggling with what has been described elsewhere as "quasi-Elizabethan linguistics," which could make it difficult to understand the plot, I can say that I enjoyed it thanks to the action and delightful cinematography, which slowly unveiled the whole thing for me. This is truly poetry in film, in every sense of the word.
Right from the beginning we meet Prospero, the magician (Heathcote Williams); his ready-to-marry-and-have-sex daughter Miranda (Toyah Willcox); and Caliban, the slave - annoying, I should add -- (Jack Birkett, in my favorite performance). The three of them live in a castle on an island, in exile, as dictated by Prospero's brother, Sebastian (Neil Cunningham), and Alonso, the King of Naples (Peter Bull). Prospero does have a temper, and punishes anybody that arrives to the island. As fate dictates, the first unexpected visitor is the king's son, Ferdinand (David Meyer), who Prospero immediately makes a prisoner. Ferdinand, who arrives to the island and the castle naked as a result of a shipwreck, ignites Miranda's ready-to-burn-passions. Soon thereafter, other people begin to arrive to the island, including Sebastian and Alonso. All this makes Caliban happy, and he proceeds to plan getting rid of his master. This volatile mix of characters provide for a delicious and legendary ending, including a much celebrated wedding party, with the participation of musical comedy star Elisabeth Welch.
"The Tempest" is a modern take of Shakespeare's final famous play. It is magical, colorful, dark, erotic and surreal at the same time. Give it a try; you'll be engaged and educated at the same time -- a good take on a classic by the late Derek Jarman. The Blu-ray includes Jarman's short films "A Journey to Avebury" (1971), "Garden of Luxor" (1972), and "Art of Mirrors" (1973). (UK, 1979, color, 95 min plus additional materials). Reviewed on September 11, 2012. Kino Classics Blu-ray.
Reviewed on September 11, 2012 by Eric Gonzales for Kino Classics Blu-ray.
on October 15, 2003
Derek Jarman's vision of The Tempest is a strange but artistic one. Although at times it can be too weird to really take seriously, Jarman's film deserves to be seen by those who love Shakespeare and those who love movies. In The Tempest, Jarman combines elements of traditional Shakespeare, Stanley Kubrick, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show to create an extraordinary vision of the classic play. Baz Luhrmann owes a lot to this movie for his adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, as evidenced by the combination of genres, the bizarre imagery, and especially Elisabeth Welch's performance as a Josephine Baker-inspired chanteuse, which mirrors Desiree's incarnation as Billie Holiday in Luhrmann's film. It is worth noting that those who were not open-minded enough to appreciate Luhrmann's film should probably not see this one.
Despite all of these innovations, however, The Tempest moves too slowly to keep up with its own progressive style. The movie would have greatly benefited from being shortened by about half an hour. The one reason to sit through the tedious moments is to watch Karl Johnson, who, as a nervous Ariel, gives by far the most interesting performance.
on August 4, 2008
This is one of the most unique adaptations of Shakespeare, and one of Derek Jarman's best films. It's a very stripped down version of Shakespeare's last play. If you're looking for a realistic, stridently faithful adaptation, look elsewhere. It's not here. Jarman is one of the best British filmmakers ever (and one of the most unknown, which is a bloody shame), and his literary adaptations are entirely his own. The Tempest, Caravaggio, and Edward II take place in the past, but there are always modern touches which alienate some of the audience, but dazzle others. This is a great example of Jarman's filmmaking.
The film is very spooky, cerebral, austere (probably because of budget limitations), yet it's intensely watchable. It has great performances by all (including many Jarman regulars), beautiful, startling cinemtography, and wonderful atmosphere. It was shot almost exclusively in an abandoned abbey, where Jarman and the crew essentially lived as they shot the film. The film, while slow at times, builds up a great tension until the finale, when Jarman indulges himself wonderfully and has the wedding party of Miranda and her suitor. There are sailors everywhere, petal flowers flowing, and Elizabeth Welch singing a beautiful rendition of Stormy Weather. It's one of Jarman's best scenes ever, and ending the film in this manner is a masterstroke.
The DVD by Kino Video is quite good. It includes the original press kit and three fascinating short films by Jarman, A Jounrey to Avebury, Garden of Luxor, and Art of Mirrors (the best of the three). They are all silent, but they are still great to watch, especially if you're a Jarman fan. If you admire Derek Jarman, or if you wish to see one of the most unique adaptations of Shakespeare ever, check this film out. It's really something.
on October 6, 2013
People who will watch or want this film on video by and large will be fans of its director--the iconolastic Derek Jarman (The Last of England, Sebastiane). It's slow, plodding dialogue, shoestring production values, and slow pacing is countered of course by Jarman's inventive and quirky take on the Bard's second foray into the land of fairies and supernatural beings (the other being A Midsummer's Night Dream). The film is not really accessible for those who like action, violence, sex, special effects or all four (which is a good percentage of the movie going public). Plus it's Shakespeare, an author who never really translates well to film regardless of the director (the exception being West Side Story--Leonard Bernstein's take on Romeo and Juliet). Sound quality is so-so even on this Blu Ray transfer, and the full frame doesn't add anything to an already difficult film to digest. Jarman has always been classified as an art-house director, and most of the well-known movie critics and newspapers give this film good to great reviews. But it's definitely not a film for mainstream moviegoers. So be forewarned.