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Review (***) ‘The Tempest’, Dir. Derek Jarman, Kendon Films, 1979.

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Review (***) ‘The Tempest’, Kendon Films. 91 minutes.

By Alan Brown

January 4, 2018

‘The Tempest’, is available:
in the US, from Amazon.com to buy as a DVD for $15.99
in the UK, from Amazon.co.uk  to buy as Blu-Ray for £13.80
Prices are indicative – check the actual price at the Vendors’ links above.


Our Bottom Line:

Not nearly as alternative as its detractors suggest. More an approach to ‘The Tempest’ than a way-out travesty. A gothic squall from a brave film maker and artist.



Our Review (***):

It is oddly charming that Derek Jarman still ‘discovers’ Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess in a sunny moment. OK, the happy couple are in rococo costume but precious little else in this film treatment of ‘The Tempest’ is quite so composed. Only the closing set-piece tops it: Elizabeth Welch as Juno sings a sweet n’mellow ‘Stormy Weather’  to an admiring line of sailor boys, which in itself is a wonderful example of how to take whopping, camp sized liberties with Shakespeare.


Perhaps the late 1970s was the time to let it all hang out. Defiantly. Hair was big and fashion was flamboyant and in saturated colour, Bowie was on a world tour and ABBA’s ‘Take a Chance on Me’ gave way to Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ as the UK’s number one single. Jarman does dress Shakespeare’s precarious ‘Comedy’ with the frills and ornaments of gothic romance  and he certainly believed that there are films ‘where magic works’, with or without Gheorghe Zamfir’s pan flute, and his ‘Tempest’ of 1979 is probably one of them. His shaggy Prospero is a mighty spellcaster, who (as required by Act 5. Scene 1, ‘Ye elves of hills, brooks …’) can raise storms one minute and raise the dead the next. Throw this right duke of Milan out of his library and out of his dukedom and you court disaster. Retribution will follow for sure, while forgiveness might, which remains the burden of the piece. When all is done – when ‘our revels now are ended’ and the chiaroscuro fades  – will Prospero break his staff and drown his book of spells? I wouldn’t count on it. He’s only asleep until the next performance.


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The film opens with the conjuror waking from a dream of shipwreck. His mind seethes with imagery at the masthead and the soundtrack is of heavy breathing from Hammer Horror Productions. Cut, correctly, to Prospero’s ‘cell’ on the enchanted island, and see that it is now a stately mansion with marble fireplaces and chandeliers fit for any masque or celebration. Heathcote Williams, as Prospero with half-moon glasses, stubble, neck cloth and homespun breeches, strides and stalks its many ill-lit (and burnt out) corridors as a magician possessed. He looks to be in his late 30s, is grave and kind but furious when his trust is abused, which is spot on. He chalks up his astrological calculations on the wood panelling and there are runes on the boards. I was reminded of Linus Roache as Coleridge in ‘Pandemonium’ (2000) and indeed that poet’s glorious and strange ‘Kubla Khan’, ‘A Vision in a Dream’ doesn’t seem far away from Jarman’s idea:



And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread,

For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.


[Ed: for our view of The Tempest as a dream, see  A1S2: Prospero tells Miranda their history]


Miranda (Toyah Wilcox: ‘…. I’d rather have been a 70s punk than be young today’), impish, naif and sexy, play-acts receiving imagined admirers in her gorgeous palace and is well rehearsed for the gracious attentions of Ferdinand, who is cast up butt naked on the Northumbrian shore. They play badminton together in the west wing! With Caliban (unmistakable and memorable from Jack Birkett) it is a different, unwholesome matter. Here is the ‘savage slave’ laughing maniacally and jerking up his trousers as Miranda passes. If there is a post-colonial interpretation available, it’s far-fetched and way behind a  master-servant relationship that is upheld by obligation and mutual responsibility. The same holds for what the play says about how power should be used.



And so to Ariel, who wears a Brave New World jump suit as some indication of his skittish servitude perhaps, except that Karl Johnson is a better actor than that suggests. He speaks, rather than sings, which is a shame but his sudden appearances – on a rocking horse, in a mirror, framed by grasses on the sand dunes – are all effective. However, the framing of his face in straw for an extended period is a mistake and recalls the Scarecrow of ‘The Wizard of Oz’. This is one captive spirit who deserves to be set free.



The usurping pairs – comic in Stephano and Trinculo, sinister in Antonio and Sebastian – play their parts but their actions appear simply foolish and entertain Prospero and Ariel more than they do any audience. The spooky wardrobe of ‘glistening apparel’ and ceramic mask is a nice touch though. Quite right too that good Gonzalo’s utopian commonwealth is described (and mocked) as that worthy gentleman leads the way over the dunes on a blue screen.



Arguably Jarman’s screenplay resembles a series of imaginative tableaux illumined by coherent snatches of Shakespeare’s text. The New York Times (22 Sept. 1980) rubbished it out of hand – ‘no poetry, no ideas, no characterizations, no narrative, no fun’ – but it is worth reading that review, which is bright and sharp, just to realize the expectations that the film maker was up against. Jarman’s ‘Art’ does respect Shakespeare’s, it’s just not as potent, and it’s up yours with love from 1979. I’m guessing, but Prospero would call it ‘rough magic’.





Alan Brown
Reviews Editor


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