The Tempest (1979) was Derek Jarman’s third feature-length film and it’s arguably one of his most accessible. In some ways it’s a rather traditional retelling of Shakespeare’s classic play about an aging magician named Prospero (Heathcote Williams) who is imprisoned on an island with his beautiful daughter Miranda (Toyah Willcox) and a beast called Caliban (Jack Birkett). Prospero seeks vengeance on his traitorous brother Antonio (Richard Warwick), and with help from the mischievous spirit Ariel (Karl Johnson) he conjures up a storm that carries Antonio and his accomplices to his doorstep. At the end of The Tempest, Prospero’s vengeance takes a backseat to Shakespeare’s larger themes of forgiveness, repentance, friendship, family, the onset of old age and inevitability of death. But Jarman also uses the Bard’s play as a springboard for his own internal concerns about the decline of the British Empire and the role of the artist in modern society.
Jarman’s fresh adaptation of Shakespeare’s canonical work is infused with an avant-garde sensibility that’s more aggressively apparent in the director’s previous feature film, Jubilee (1977). Jarman frequently worked with the same actors, and by casting performers like the blind mime Birkett as Caliban and punk diva Willcox, Jarman expresses a desire to attract a younger and more eclectic audience to his retelling of this classic play. He also dresses his cast in a variety of costumes from every era imaginable, which lends the film a timeless quality mirrored by our ongoing appreciation for Shakespeare’s work. Jarman’s transgressive approach to the material is further established by the way he uses a cut-up style technique to dismantle, replace and reinterpret the Bard’s original text without completely destroying the play’s poetry.
But what’s most impressive about The Tempest is the way Jarman weaves his film together to create a phantasmagorical symphony of images and words. Most of the film’s action takes place in Prospero’s dark and decaying island manor lit by flickering candlelight. Labyrinth-like hallways connect large impenetrable rooms full of dusty old books and mysterious artifacts. Characters seem to float through every frame as if they were ghosts. Jarman believed that “film is the wedding of light and matter – an alchemical conjunction.” His fascination with alchemy led him to research the lives of Renaissance magicians such as Cornelius Agrippa and John Dee, who may have been the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero. This obsession with magic must have informed Jarman’s direction of The Tempest, which has an unearthly quality that’s both enchanting and unsettling. Jarman ends his film with the spectacular transformation of Prospero’s lead-laden lair into a gold infused wedding party where Elisabeth Welch sings an unforgettable cabaret version of “Stormy Weather” surrounded by smiling sailors. This is Jarman at his most playful and it’s a surpassingly campy end to a film bursting with alchemical references.
The director’s unwavering interest in classic theater and recurring obsession with monarchy often seemed at odds with the experimental nature of his work. But adapting The Tempest gave Jarman the perfect opportunity to subvert the text of Britain’s greatest literary hero and invest it with a queer sensibility. Jarman didn’t consider his attempt to translate The Tempest as particularly radical yet it’s anything but traditional. The experimental filmmaker was taking Shakespeare’s play out of the hands of the British establishment and giving it back to the people on the street. Gay men and women, young punks, artists, curious bystanders and fringe dwellers were given the chance to experience Shakespeare’s play unbridled by bourgeois restraints. Today it may seem like a mild kind of rebellion but in 1979, Jarman’s interpretation of The Tempest must have seemed downright traitorous to some.
The film originally received mixed reviews. In Britain critics like Alan Brien of The Sunday Times called The Tempest “one of the most original and masterly films ever made in Britain.” But a critical blow was delivered by Vincent Canby of The New York Times who said Jarman’s film “would be funny if it weren’t very nearly unbearable. It’s a fingernail scratched 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 has shattered but not broken.” Canby’s review effectively killed the film’s chance to reach a wider audience in America and its effect on Jarman was devastating. It became increasingly difficult for the director to finance his film projects so he turned much of his attention instead to making music videos for MTV and its mutable audience of pop-obsessed teenagers. Six years later when Jarman unleashed his award-winning biopic of the Italian artist Caravaggio (1986), the director fired back at Canby’s critical assessment of The Tempest by having the character of Giovanni Baglione, one of the artist’s most vocal critics in the film, proclaim that Caravaggio’s work was also “unbearable, a fingernail scratched along a blackboard.”