Joshua Reviews Derek Jarman’s The Tempest [Blu-ray Review]

Looking at Shakespeare adaptations on the big screen over the years, they often come in two colors. Some often take the Bard’s words, adapt them as written, and don’t make much in the way of creative changes. And then there are the complete ‘adaptations.’ Taking a story, for example ‘Taming Of The Shrew,’ setting it in modern times, writing modern dialogue around the story, and then calling it 10 Things I Hate About You, and you often have some of the most interesting adaptations around. However, very few of the cinematic takes on Shakespeare’s words have been as singular as Derek Jarman’s The Tempest.

The Tempest tells the story of a magician named Prospero, who along with his daughter, lives in exile on an island (or in the case of this film more so a mansion). Sent there by his brother, the King of Naples, he with the help of the spirit named Ariel, raises a tempest to destroy an oncoming ship. When one remaining shipmate comes onto the island, the king’s son, he falls for the lonely magician’s daughter, Miranda, and when the king goes on the hunt for his son, he teams with others to plot to kill Prospero. One of Shakespeare’s oft-adapted plays, Jarman’s take on the iconic piece is easily one of the most esoteric and singular adaptations, and in turn one of the best.

Tapping directly into the original piece’s look into the relationship between both life and art, Jarman’s adaptation is truly Jarman’s adaptation. Featuring Jarman’s patented homoeroticism (particularly during a lavish party sequence at the film’s conclusion, The Tempest is a melancholy film that may meditate on the Bard’s themes of life and art, but it blends in a distinctly angry and truly downhearted sense of where the world Jarman then lived in was going. Encompassed in the singing of Harold Aden’s ‘Stormy Weather’ by Elisabeth Welch, the film, as with many of Jarman’s works, is distinctly political, giving us a look at the artist’s distinctly anti-Thatcher stance. It really is quite a meaty film, featuring dense themes that will leave you, and those you see this with, talking for hours after. Toss in Jarman’s patented look at sexual power and violence, very much inspired by the films of Pasolini, and it becomes one of his most dense and breathtaking features. And not just about the lavish style either.

But yes, The Tempest is as gaudy, as lavish, and as lush as films could ever cinematically get. Featuring verdant earth-tones; yellows, greens, browns and golds, the film’s cinematography is utterly gorgeous. Taking the setting to a mansion instead of just an island, the film is beautifully and naturally lit, often only by candlelight, giving the film a naturalistic and quite expressive sense of style. Very much aesthetically like a playful Godard film (think Tempest  being to Shakespeare as A Woman Is A Woman  was to musicals),  The Tempest  takes long bits of dialogue, and often turns the pieces on their head by both crafting a visceral  and gorgeous world around it (Jarman would later go on to do various scene work for other filmmakers, particularly Ken Russell, later in his career).  Blending the aforementioned experimentation of Godard with the Pasolini aesthetic and themes, and capped off by what may very well be one of the greatest scenes in the years since this film’s debut; a wedding that is unlike anything you’ll ever seen, and you have one of the most beautiful films in modern British cinema history.

But all would be for naught if it weren’t for the shockingly well-chosen cast that Jarman had selected for this film, despite how odd his choices may very well seem.

Playwright Heathcote Williams stars as Prospero, and is actually quite great here. He has a fantastic sense of the language here, and as described in his bio as being a ‘long-time conjuror,’ obviously has a kinship with his magician lead here. A less easy choice however came in the casting of Miranda, which went to punk rock mega-star (and also star of Criterion-approved Jubilee also from Jarman and the soon to be released Quadrophenia) Toyah Willcox. Always seen as a virginal young woman, Willcox’s punk rock persona far from fit the character, but her performance was really quite entertaining, and the relationship between she and Williams’ Prospero is vital and engaging. Rounded out by the likes of Karl Johnson, Richard Warwick, and even the ever incomparable Peter Bull, this cast is truly out of step with what would be imagined for a ‘Tempest’ adaptation, but it works like very few have.

Available on Blu-ray from Kino on August 7, the film has never looked better. Kino continues their beautiful work with Jarman’s filmography (read my review of their Blu-ray of Jarman’s Sebastiane HERE), and this is no different. The film looks breathtaking in HD, and the score and dialogue are as crisp as ever. Rounded out with three short films from Jarman’s early career, the release includes transfers of the shorts A Journey To Avebury, Garden of Luxor and Art Of Mirrors, all give great artistic context to a career that many people are still quite unfamiliar with. For fans of Jarman’s filmography this is an absolute must-own, and it’s also one for any cinephile to jump right into. It’s easily Jarman’s most assessable piece of filmmaking, but it’s also one of his best.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.