When working on my thesis, I found THE TEMPEST (1979) to be the most elusive of Derek Jarman’s films, primarily because it was then unavailable on video in the States. Naturally, it was released a month after I handed in my thesis. I’ve viewed it three times in the ensuing decade, and admittedly, it still feels pretty elusive. Although one of Jarman’s more relatively accessible efforts, the whole thing seems to emanate from another dimension, perhaps some backwater that time forgot--not an altogether unpleasant place, mind you, but definitely somewhere unfamiliar.
That's not to say THE TEMPEST is an outright flop (although Vincent Canby's infamous New York Times review effectively sunk its prospects in the States). But it may be the only Jarman film I don't entirely get. I can appreciate his sometimes ingenuous tweaking of the source material, I can applaud the actors' individual accomplishments, I can revel at the striking visual scheme (interior darkness alternating with a blue-filtered exterior), but for the most part, it just doesn't move me (with the exception of one scene I'll discuss later in this essay).
I've never read Shakespeare’s final play nor seen a production of it, so I’m uncertain how faithful an adaptation it is—not that Jarman’s overly concerned with historical accuracy. This was the play's first ever feature-length film version (Paul Mazurksy would direct his own very different, but equally idiosyncratic TEMPEST three years later). To forgo the excessive costs of visualizing the play’s desert island setting, Jarman transports it to a candlelit gothic castle, where a younger-than-usual Prospero the Magician (Heathcote Williams) holds court with his daughter Miranda, his slave Caliban and the angel Ariel (JUBILEE cast members Toyah Willcox, Jack Birkett and Karl Johnson, respectively).
Structuring the film as the dream of its lead character, THE TEMPEST is where Jarman begins to explicitly, gleefully fuck with period piece-related physical conventions (he did this a little in SEBASTIANE, but to nowhere near this extent). Rather than setting the action in one particular, well-defined era, the film compresses the clothes and artifacts of multiple eras into an instinctive, fluid whole. It pops and fizzes with such deliberate anachronisms as Miranda riding a hobby horse, sudden merry-go-round music, an indoor badminton match and Ariel’s very 20th century white jumpsuit. Those who complain about the lack of historical accuracy are, in Jarman’s mind, possibly missing the point: to favor the feelings and emotions of a text over its literal construct is to breathe life into and examine it from an emotional, psychological and personal viewpoint.
Although he remains sympathetic to the play’s basic outline and thematic structure, Jarman alters just about everything else. To mold a four-hour play into a 95-minute feature, it’s expected that he’d cut out a lot of dialogue and a few soliloquies, but what remains is fairly minimal. The few words spoken do not get in the way of the guttural, subterranean ambient score, which features found sounds (like manipulated breaths) more than actual music. In contrast, a scene with Caliban cradled in the arms and suckling on the tit of his naked, grotesque witch-mother Sycorax is straight out of a vintage John Waters film, though it feels far less in-your-face than Waters would have ever allowed.
Like JUBILEE, the film plays like a series of sketches, but instead of building momentum toward some sort of cathartic break-and-release, it just meanders along. There are some neat, succinct little scenes, such as the wonderfully childlike Miranda play-acting a courtship ritual with herself on a staircase. But as a dream film, much of it doesn't fully connect to the degree that his later, even more personal (and it must be said, more challenging) works do.
But then there's "Stormy Weather":
The film's climax comes with Miranda's wedding to Ferdinand, which, in keeping with the structure, is played as pure fantasy. It kicks off with a chorus of twenty or so youthful male sailors dancing a giddy, florid stovepipe, followed by a showering of rose petals. However, that's just an appetizer to the main course: regal, decked out grande dame Elisabeth Welch (rather resembling a septuagenarian, space-aged Patti LaBelle) stops by to serenade the lucky couple (and more explicitly the admiring sailors) with a show-stopping rendition of the song "Stormy Weather". The sequence is a little audacious and more than a little camp, yet oddly touching--it's rather affectionate without lapsing into parody. It's also more jolting and memorable than most of what preceded it, and it makes for a lovely bridge into the quiet, graceful final scene, where Ariel is set free and Prospero, alone, is left to exit one world and enter the next.
Appropriately enough, THE TEMPEST also left its director at a crossroads. One could entertain an alternate reality where Jarman immediately continued making similar works. Instead, Thatcherism and a transitioning British film industry intervened: he would not complete another feature for six years.