The Tempest (1979)

*. Every production of Shakespeare, and especially every instance of Shakespeare on film, can be plotted on a continuum of faithfulness to the text. Sometimes they’re little more than a camera making a recording of a theatrical performance, as in Olivier’s Othello (1965). At other times you have a pretty complete re-imagining of the play in a different context: Romeo and Juliet as West Side Story, Hamlet as The Bad Sleep Well, and The Tempest as a Western (Yellow Sky) or set in outer space (Forbidden Planet).
*. The Tempest has always been more open than most of the canon for a free interpretation. After all the time I’ve spent with it I’m still not sure what it’s about, or what to think of it. It’s a problem, or matter of personal taste, that I have with all the romances. And it leaves a director pretty free to go in any direction.
*. Derek Jarman obviously doesn’t feel wedded to Shakespeare’s Tempest in this adaptation. I say that despite the fact that he does keep most of the basic story intact. But the text is mangled badly, with a lot of cuts and rearrangements. Right from the opening, where we see a rather youthful Prospero (Heathcote Williams, who was only 38) writhing in bed muttering lines that I couldn’t make out at all I had the sense that Jarman really didn’t care much what was being said. As things went on that’s a feeling that would only deepen.

*. To my eyes and ears there are two problems with this Tempest. The way it looks and the way it sounds.
*. I would like to say that it’s poorly lit and has badly recorded sound, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. The look and the sound were conscious decisions. But the look is dark to the point where it’s hard to see very much and the sound, while there are some nice effects (like the breathing to accompany the working of magic), is frustrating and annoying. There’s a lot of loud laughter that made me cringe, but at the same time I could barely hear half of the lines.
*. I say this was a conscious decision, and it’s clear that Jarman had a vision here. But what was it? What is the point of going in this direction? And what direction is it anyway?
*. It’s often described as “punk” or “camp.” I don’t see much evidence of the former aside from the tatty atmosphere that hangs around Stoneleigh Abbey (and which made me wonder why they wanted to shoot in such a location when all they did was throw hay and trash around until they made it look like an abandoned tenement building or shooting alley). I don’t see much evidence for the latter aside from the musical number at the end with its dancing sailors and Elizabeth Welch singing “Stormy Weather.”
*. From Jarman’s handwritten notes: “I hope to capture something of the mystery and atmosphere of the original without descending to theatrics.” So . . . mystery and atmosphere. He also stresses the importance of magic quite a bit, but it seems to me that the magic in this film is really downplayed. As, aside from the final number, is the music. And what is The Tempest without magic and music?
*. Jarman also apparently said that he was drawn to the play because of the way it dealt with the theme of forgiveness. Which it does. But which this film doesn’t, since it leaves all of that stuff out.

*. It’s also not a particularly political Tempest. There was even some criticism from Shakespeare scholars because the post-colonial presentation of the play that was peaking at around this time (the island as the New World, Caliban as Black or Aboriginal) wasn’t pursued. Jarman thought that such an approach would be too limiting, “make it more specific than general,” and while I don’t agree with that I do agree with his exercising his freedom to make whatever kind of Tempest he wanted to. But again, what kind of a Tempest is it?
*. About the only thing I can say with some confidence is that this version really belongs to Ferdinand and Miranda. They are the stars of the show, despite being relatively minor parts in the play. We are a third of the way into the film before the court party are even introduced, and they are shortchanged the rest of the way as well. But we spend a lot of time with the young lovers, even when they’re just goofing around. But having said that, I’m not sure that’s a good thing. The two of them have few important lines and really aren’t that interesting, apart or together.
*. I hope this doesn’t make me sound like a stick in the mud. Like Vincent Canby, say, whose New York Times review was a full-on rant, worth quoting just for the fun of it: Jarman’s Tempest “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. You can barely see through the production to Shakespeare, so you must rely on memory. . . There are no poetry, no ideas, no characterizations, no narrative, no fun.”
*. Actually, I think I probably do agree with Canby here. But I don’t think that makes me a stick. I like Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991), and went along with Julie Taymor’s slightly more traditional 2010 version. I just didn’t enjoy this at all. Indeed, when I was watching it I was thinking it might be as bad as another “punk” Shakespeare, Troma’s Tromeo and Juliet. Then I began to wonder if Tromeo and Juliet might even be a bit better. In the end I couldn’t make up my mind. I sort of hate them both.

11 thoughts on “The Tempest (1979)

  1. Over-The-Shoulder

    Great review. It’s definitely interesting to analyse the paltering of classic works and the amount of creative freedom someone can take without tampering the core at which something is great. Although The Tempest isn’t that great anyway, so it seemed like this film was always doomed to fail – can’t go too radical or you get panned, but can’t keep it to close to text or it’s just dull. Seemed like a project not worth pursuing, all in all.

    1. Alex Good

      It’s not my favourite play, by a long shot. And Jarman isn’t my favourite director, by an even longer shot. So this was a miss for me. But my Bard coverage continues.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.