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"O brave new world, to have such people in it."
--Miranda, The Tempest
Pioneering director Derek Jarman introduced a brave new world to filmgoers with this unconventional adaptation of William Shakespeare's last solo dramatic effort. Prior to this 1979 release, no film director had attempted to put on screen the kind of experimental, deconstructed vision of the Bard that was starting to turn up in more experimental theatres around the globe. Jarman paid the price in some scathing reviews, marking a major setback to his still young career, but left a work that has intrigued new generations of fans and eventually developed a cult following.
As experimental as his approach was, Jarman's was the first sound film rendition of Shakespeare's play, which had previously inspired the plots of the Western Yellow Sky (1948) and the science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet (1956). Although more recent scholars have found in the story of the exiled duke Prospero (playwright Heathcote Williams), who uses his magical skills to take over a remote island, a consideration of the colonial mentality, leading to the play's being banned from high school curricula in Arizona, Jarman was drawn by the theme of forgiveness. Prospero starts out seeking revenge on the brother who deposed him and the prince who had helped him, but eventually welcomes them to his new island home and allows his daughter, Miranda, to marry the prince's son, Ferdinand. Appropriately, the director dedicated the film to his mother, Elizabeth Evelyn Jarman, who had supported his pursuit of the arts despite discouragement from his military officer father.
Jarman's brief career (he died of HIV complications in 1994, at the age of 52) had a strong impact on British cinema. He made England's first openly homoerotic films and introduced an experimental strain into the then-ailing British film industry. According to Brian Hoyle's article "Derek Jarman: Radical Traditionalist," the director followed in the footsteps of gay Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini in bringing modern sensibilities to his considerations of the past, providing new takes on the lives of St. Sebastian, the artist Caravaggio and classic works like The Tempest, Shakespeare's sonnets and Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. Part of that fascination may have stemmed from his struggle to accept his own homosexuality. During college studies in literature and art history, Jarman searched the canon for works reflecting a gay sensibility. It also accounts for his distinctive use of anachronism, from the art deco sets he designed for director Ken Russell's The Devils (1971) to his inclusion of contemporary props in Caravaggio (1986) and the 20th century music in The Tempest. (See Brian Hoyle, "Derek Jarman: Radical Traditionalist," Senses of Cinema, http://sensesofcinema.com/2007/great-directors/jarman/)
Jarman's more experimental approach in The Tempest is established from the first shots, which juxtapose stock footage of ships and storms at sea, much of it color-tinted, intercut with shots of a sleeping Prospero, whose voiceover relays the lines of the characters on shipboard. This anticipates a device Peter Greenaway would use in his own Tempest adaptation, Prospero's Books (1991), in which John Gielgud, as Prospero, speaks every line of the Shakespeare original. Jarman had considered this device for his own film, but chose instead to have the characters speak most of their own lines after the opening sequence.
Although staying true to the plot, Jarman fragments the dialogue, at times placing lines from several different scenes into one, at others breaking speeches up over several scenes and making liberal cuts in the original text. Of course, Laurence Olivier had done this in some of his Shakespeare adaptations, particularly his Richard III (1955), but not to the extent Jarman would. Moreover, Jarman complements the textual changes with some startlingly original approaches to character and staging. He transforms the mystical island of Shakespeare's play into a tumbledown mansion filled with hay, using the 15th century Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire. Jarman would later say that he was attempting to free the text from direct cinematic representations of the settings described in the dialogue. Miranda is far from the usual virginal ingnue, played by punk star Toyah Willcox as a sexually precocious wild child, while Ferdinand washes up on shore naked. By contrast, the most intimate relationship is between Prospero and Ariel, a white-clad figure who seems to have a sexual connection to his magical master.
The most startling change is in the wedding masque that ends the action. Not only do Miranda and Ferdinand show up in the height of 18th century fashion, one of the film's many anachronisms, but the entertainment starts with the prince's sailors performing a gay (in every sense of the word) dance. Then jazz singer Elisabeth Welch (in her final film appearance) shows up in full Renaissance regalia and sings the standard "Stormy Weather." The moment is designed to end the film, shot on 8-mm with mostly low-key lighting, with a spirit of celebration marking Prospero's forgiveness of those who had plotted against him. Some critics have also suggested it also was intended as an act of defiance against Margaret Thatcher, whose homophobia and new policies of government austerity were already beginning to affect British life.
Although the film received mixed reviews, Jarman paid the price for his unconventional approach in some of the most scathing reviews of his career. Vincent Canby in the New York Times was particularly virulent, saying it "would be funny if it weren't very nearly unbearable. It's a fingernail scratching along a blackboard, sand in spinach, a 33-r.p.m. recording of Don Giovanni played at 78 r.p.m. Watching it is like driving a car whose windshield was shattered but not broken." That review destroyed any chance the film had of finding an international audience, blunting the box office momentum created by Jarman's first two features, Sebastiane (1976) and Jubilee (1978). With no chance of financing another feature, the director turned to music videos, eventually saving the money to start his next feature, Caravaggio. In that film, he got back at Canby by having one of the Renaissance artist's severest critics compare his work to "a fingernail scratched along a blackboard." The ultimate revenge, however, may be The Tempest's increasing reputation over the years, with its now being viewed as a major work in the development of British and queer cinema.
Producer: Don Boyd
Director: Derek Jarman
Based on the play by William Shakespeare
Cinematography: Peter Middleton
Score: Brian Hodgson, John Lewis
Cast: Peter Bull (Alonso, the King of Naples), David Meyer (Ferdinand, his son), Heathcote Williams (Prospero, the Right Duke of Milan), Toyah Willcox (Miranda, his daughter), Richard Warwick (Antonio, his brother), Karl Johnson (Ariel, an airy spirit), Jack Birkett (Caliban, a savage and deformed slave), Elisabeth Welch (A Goddess).
by Rob Nixon