Wednesday, November 9, 2022

The Tempest (1979)

On a distant island lives the magician Prospero and his youthful daughter Miranda. Their isolation is ended when Prospero commands his fairy Ariel to wreck a nearby ship, containing the Neapolitan royalty. While everyone makes it ashore safely, they are separated from Ferdinand, the king's son, and both parties presumes the other to be dead. As they make their way to the island's centre, the prince is found by the island's master, where he finds hardship and love...

One of Shakespeare's final plays was the fantastical romance The Tempest   It was in the 70s when avant-garde filmmaker Derek Jarman sought to bring it to the screen. An admirer of Shakespeare, he felt his plays still had much to offer, and threw his lot in with one of the most offbeat adaptions around.

The Tempest seems to lend itself more to abstract re-tellings, with the loony Prospero's Books being a good example (what represents the storm?!). Jarman's stab at the play is strange in two ways. The first is in its delivery, and the second is in its environment. The Tempest is set on an idyllic island, full of lush sand and trees. This  however, is set almost entirely indoors, in a run-down dilapidated manor, lit in darkness.

This is often referred to as Derek Jarman's The Tempest, for ease of comfort (since goodness knows how many others have made their own adaptions). But interestingly, the film itself goes by William Shakespeare's The Tempest. I mean, it sounds obvious, yeah, but to me that shows a level of respect Jarman had to the author, that instead of slapping his own name in the title and on the poster, he put Shakespeare's instead.

This is a good adaption, getting many of the key scenes across, as well as the core story. The dialogue is edited down from the text, but not so much that it loses the soul of the words. The omissions and changes are where it gets most interesting though. In recent decades, The Tempest has brought a wave of different readings, from feminist to post-colonial. This feels like a production inspired by that  and it delivers a unique interpretation of the play.

What really sets Jarman's The Tempest apart is its tone, and how it presents its main character. Prospero in the text is good at heart, and ends the play renouncing his magic, but even there he has his shiftier moments. This film builds from that, bringing forth a very ambiguous figure. From the darkness of the visuals, to the = in his character, Prospero here at times feels somewhat villainous.

Things come to a head in an interesting reworking of the ending. Prospero's renunciation is left out entirely, and an earlier speech in the play is shifted towards the end, where it takes on a whole new meaning. Coupled with the choice of song beforehand, this leaves us on a somewhat moody note.

Of course, it's entirely possible the film could be read straightly as a happy ending, with no bones attached. Jarman himself was inspired by the play's themes of forgiveness, so he clearly didn't see the source material as a dingy cesspool of depression and broken dreams. So one could easily read this as an upbeat ending with a simple predilection for the blues.

Derek Jarman was, among other things, a queer activist, and this was an important element in nearly all of his films, and his art. The Tempest handles this in a subtle way. There is homoerotic imagery, and one might draw subtext, but it's not like Jarman just makes Fernando and Prospero hot for each-other, or writes a threesome between the comic relief, just for the sake of it. It's deeper and more subtle than that.

One potential queer reading is in Ariel's story. That of a young gay man trapped in male bondage. His forced servitude to the witch Sycorax could represent a young homosexual stuck in an untenable relationship with a woman, before being 'rescued' by a seemingly benevolent older man, only for this new relationship to be toxic in a different way.

If I had one major complaint with the film, it's that much of the dialogue is delivered with a whisper, and this is especially a problem when the prose is already in Shakespearean English. Us modern day audience are already trying our hardest to understand the text itself. This isn't a huge problem, but could prove a slight obstacle for some.

The acting here is quite good. Heathcote Williams does a good (if occasionally over-the-top) performance as Prospero. In contrast with common = of the character, he's a younger actor, although this could just be a casting choice]. Karl Johnson is striking, with a fairy  yet mature appearance as Ariel. Toyah Willcox manages to make  Miranda  play to her strengths. She delivers a faithful Shakespearean style performance while making it her own anarchic/punk style.

David Meyer (of Octopussy henchman fame) does well as Ferdinand. The effeminate and theatrical Jack Birkett delivers a memorably goofy turn as Caliban. The rest of the cast is fine, and deliver iambic pentameter well. Claire Davenport has a short but graphically memorable role, while Christopher Biggins and Peter Turner are decent, but at times annoying comic relief. Also, not sure why he had to completely disrobe partway through though, and I can't say I was particularly keen to see his knob (no offense meant, Mr. Turner!).

Musically, The Tempest makes use of some ambient noises, like heavy breathing, like breath of the sea. Silence permeates many scenes (including, annoyingly, the end credits). That's not to say it's not a musical film though, as it gives a big [show] for the final act. This culminates with the spectacular rendition of Stormy Weather by none other than famous Broadway singer Elisabeth Welch.

Jarman directs The Tempest with a great eye for details. Many shots could be paintings, and the imagery goes hand in hand with the tone the film is going for. The camera is often languid, and every now and then there's a wild movement or amusing zoom. There is much of his visuals and themes here, from a Gnostic influence, with old English mysticism that feels right at home in Shakespeare, and his admiration of the nude male body. The scene of Fernando emerging from the ocean, battered naked by the storm, a pure and innocent figure, feels like a definitive moment in Karman's filmography.

The indoors setting to The Tempest comes courtesy of Stoneleigh Abbey, a dwelling from Shakespeare's time. Filming was held here due to the small budget, but the presence of such a historical location goes a long way! The building was in a state of severe disrepair after a fire some years earlier. There were holes in the ceiling, tons of leaves had fallen through, and piles of ash were still lying about. This appearance gives a strong sense of decay, but also opulence, especially when it's restored in the brighter scenes.

The clothing design is worthy of mention too. Each character has a distinct outfit, namely Miranda, in a torn dress adorned in seashells. I was interested by the visual parallels between how Sycorax and Miranda are dressed.

The lighting here is predominately dark, and this is mostly in an effective way, though at times it does get a bit much. Every now and then we get scenes with bright light and coloured walls, contrasting well. There are also a few outside scenes, which use a day-for-night process, plus a blue tint. This is good in small does, though after a while it becomes a little too blue.

This is a fascinating and = film. Derek Jarman really makes The Tempest his own, while bringing out the magic of Shakespeare's words. Naturally this isn't a movie for everyone. You've gotta be a fan of classical plays, art films, and homosexual =. But if you're into at least one, and don't mind seeing rather a lot of male nudity, this is a great film to check out...

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