“The Tempest” (1979) – Movie Review

The weirdness in Derek Jarman’s 1979 adaptation of The Tempest is something that could attract people and repel them at the same time. This is the kind of movie that’s obscure enough and bizarre enough to deserve a “cult” status. My kind of movie.

The magic of Prospero
The magic of Prospero

The story of the 1611 Shakespeare play that formed the basis for this film is, I presume, well-known. We are told that Prospero, “the rightful Duke of Milan,” was betrayed twelve years ago by his brother, Antonio (helped by Alonso, the king of Naples), thus being forced to find refuge on a deserted island, together with his young daughter, Miranda, now a teenager. Using his great magical knowledge, Prospero rescued the “airy spirit” Ariel from his entrapment by the now dead witch Sycorax (the former master of the island). Ariel now serves Prospero together with Caliban, the “savage and deformed” son of Sycorax. Currently, Prospero has conjured a tempest that would bring Antonio and his co-conspirators to the island to face the vengeance of the wronged Duke. However, Miranda falls in love with Ferdinand (son of the king of Naples), who was also stranded on the island with his father. In the end, Prospero learns to forgive, allowing the two youths to marry, destroying his magical books and staff, and freeing Ariel and all the other spirits that served him. (You can read the entire play here.)

Now, I’m not going to analyze this movie to see whether it is a faithful line-by-line adaptation of Shakespeare’s play (like, for instance, those people who are Shakespeare purists, or those who think that some comic book movies are not faithful enough to the original comics, or that the show, Game of Thrones, takes too many liberties with the original story, etc., etc.). I don’t think that’s the right approach for any kind of film adaptation. This is a different medium, and I’m just going to state my thoughts whether it works as a movie.

Unlike another The Tempest adaptation (Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books), this one doesn’t stray too far away from the original narrative path. In this sense, Derek Jarman’s film is easier to follow than Peter Greenaway’s. However, like also with Prospero’s Books, you do have to be somewhat familiar with the original play in order to fully understand what is happening on the screen.

Prospero and Ariel in lab
Prospero (Heathcote Williams) in his laboratory, with Ariel (Karl Johnson)

One of the weirdest of Jarman’s directorial choices (but not the weirdest) is to shoot almost all of the scenes indoors, inside Prospero’s house, during nighttime, turning the play into a sort of a strange haunted house movie. The music and sound design, the nighttime lighting, with muted colors (up until the wedding, at the end of the movie), and the cinematography (many close ups of the barely lit characters’ faces) work together to create the creepy atmosphere of a haunted house. There is a touch of Buñuelian surrealistic horror (think Un chien andalou), but it’s not so much scary or disturbing, as bizarre. However, at the same time, the film has a very naturalistic feel, not detached, not theatrical, but very down-to-earth (maybe a bit too much, though). One can see a lot of full frontal male nudity in this movie. Some might say that’s somewhat understandable considering there’re only two roles played by women – one of whom, by the way, gets fully naked too, the other one only half-naked. Personally, I felt it was a bit too much for my taste. But, on the other hand, male nudity is not that weird for a Derek Jarman movie.

The acting, overall, was good, but nothing really memorable, no one really stands out. One exception, perhaps, would be Jack Birkett as Caliban – but maybe that’s more due to the role that demanded a somewhat more over the top performance. Speaking of which, I have seen about six adaptations of The Tempest, and this is the only version where I didn’t feel pity for Caliban. Jack Birkett manages to create an utterly disgusting, despicable, creepy, and perverse creature.

Jack Birkett as Caliban
Jack Birkett as Caliban

This is also the only version that features a young(er) Prospero (starring a real-life magician, Heathcote Williams, which may be a nod to the idea that the character Prospero was supposedly inspired by the real-life occultist and mathematician John Dee). Williams is serviceable in the role, but, again, nothing memorable.

Ariel and Prospero
Ariel (Karl Johnson) and Prospero (Heathcote Williams)

As Ariel, Karl Johnson wears modern clothes – some sort of white jumpsuit with white gloves and white shoes, wearing white makeup on his face. He makes an odd acting choice, to play the lively spirit of the island in a somewhat sedated manner. I’m guessing that his (or Jarman’s) rationale was that Ariel is somewhat detached from human concerns, maybe because he isn’t human, or he only performs actions because Prospero told him so, promising to grant him his freedom, so he’s not acting out of his free will.

The role of Miranda went to the seventies/eighties British popstar Toyah Willcox, which was relatively controversial at the time. She brings a sort of “wildling” vibe (in the Game of Thrones sense) to the role, mixing innocence with vibrant sexuality.

Toyah Willcox as Miranda
Toyah Willcox as Miranda

The movie ends with a fairy tale (and kind of kitschy) wedding and Elisabeth Welch (credited as “A Goddess”) singing “Stormy Weather”. I must say, I DID NOT expect the Romanian folk music at the beginning of the wedding (played by Gheorghe Zamfir and his orchestra).

Miranda and Ferdinand
Miranda (Toyah Willcox) and Ferdinand (David Meyer)

So, in the end, did all the weirdness work? Well, it did for me (then again, I like weirdness). I’m not so sure it will work for others. The things that will stay with you after the closing titles will be Caliban (the disgust he provokes is so powerful), the haunted house atmosphere, and a few bizarre scenes (like, for instance, the Sycorax scene, told in flashback).

Derek Jarman’s film is a hard one to like. In fact, I’m not sure I liked anything about it. It is grotesque, dirty (literally), ugly, and sometimes disgusting. And yet, somehow, I didn’t dislike it. I found it more entertaining than, say, Prospero’s Books. It’s hard to explain, but I was mesmerized by this movie, if only by its sheer outlandishness. Would I watch it again? Yes, I would.

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The last 12 minutes of the film:

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