Shot on location at the ancient and ghostly Stoneleigh Abbey, The Tempest is Derek Jarman's (War Requiem) acclaimed 1979 film adaptation of William Shakespeare's final great play.
It is the story of Prospero the magician, who lives with his nubile daughter on an enchanted island and punishes his enemies when they are shipwrecked there. Essentially a study of sexual and political power in the guise of a fairy tale, in Jarman's hands, The Tempest becomes an original and dazzling spectacle mixing Hollywood pastiche, high camp, and gothic horror. The film recalls the innocent homoeroticism of Pasolini's versions of classics, while its lush sense of decor and color is worthy of Minnelli.
The master stroke in The Tempest is the finale, a wedding feast designed and choreographed as a full-scale production number, with the veteran black musical comedy star Elisabeth Welch wafting her way through a chorus line of hunky sailors as she belts out "Stormy Weather." It is one of the great scenes in contemporary British cinema.
In the 'The Tempest,' eccentric British filmmaker Derek Jarman brings his interpretation of William Shakespeare's most unconventional play to the big screen the only way he knows how: with outlandish flamboyancy and wildly imaginative visuals. Jarman fills the screen with unbridled weirdness and bizarre images that require the cast to dress in tattered, somewhat ghostly costumes and sputter poetic, demanding verses which only the legendary Bard of Avon could have composed.
It's a nutty and uncanny reading of what's believed to be Shakespeare's final play, but it's also mesmerizing to behold with an infectious energy and a sense that Jarman wishes his version to inspire the same impact as its source.
For the most part, the director does exceptionally well in capturing the whimsical spirit of the play despite a good (and arguably significant) chunk of the dialogue being cut for the sake of time. Ideas about sorcery and magic aligned with the illusion of the theater and a writer's talent for deceiving the imagination are not as clearly defined here as in the original work, which can be reasonably argued as a drawback. And one wouldn't be wrong in pointing this out. It's a substantial and perhaps central feature of Shakespeare's eponymous play, and pretty much ignoring it, as Jarman has, leaves a rather unsatisfying aftertaste. Instead, it would seem his concern is with another aspect expressed within the play.
Prospero's (Heathcote Williams chewing up the scenery) magic and control of the elements, aided by the reluctant spirit Ariel (Karl Johnson), is used to deceive and influence the opinion of those who have wronged him and his daughter Miranda (Toyah Willcox also hamming it up some). This is where the majority of the allusions to the theatrical and literary arts are inferred.
But in Jarman's version, the potent sorcerer uses his talents to even the score with his enemies and regain his daughter's royal line. Prospero sets his plot into motion starting with the violent hurricane that shipwrecks a passing vessel onto the island where he'd been exiled. On board is Alonso, the King of Naples (Peter Bull), his son Prince Ferdinand (David Meyer), Alonso's traitorous brother Sebastian (Neil Cunningham) and Prospero's treacherous brother Antonio (Richard Warwick), the man responsible for usurping Prospero's rightful position as Duke of Milan.
In his madly inventive style, Jarman focuses on some of the political underpinnings of the play, but he doesn't use it as suggestively as Shakespeare has. Rather, he takes those challenging ideas for his own implicit criticism of societal norms and the status quo. The upper classes are made of conspirators and betrayers, even within the same family.
Not long after landing on the island do we see Sebastian and Antonio conspire to murder Alonso, but Ariel arrives just in the nick of time and commences to perform his own trickery. This is one reason for Prospero separating Ferdinand from the rest of the group, making the prince work like a domestic chopping wood, as if to humble him. The other reason is, of course, to have him fall in love with Miranda and securing her future.
Where we really get a clear idea of Jarman's intentions is in the Caliban character, a deformed savage native turned into Prospero's slave. Portrayed enthusiastically by Jack Birkett, the son of the witch Sycorax has some of the most memorable lines of the entire play, winning some of our sympathies as a tragic, dim-witted figure wanting nothing more than his freedom. His best moment comes when he meets a pair of drunken mariners, Stephano (Christopher Biggins) and Trinculo (Peter Turner), promising to overthrow Prospero's reign. Jarman ignores post-colonial discussions in the character and quickly moves his viewers to the famous scene where the trio dresses in royal attire, hinting at the artificiality and illusion of accepted social hierarchies.
This isn't a faithful adaptation of Shakespeare's play, and in the visionary hands of Derek Jarman, it isn't meant to. Inspired by the Bard's original work, this is strictly his own unique vision of it, existing in another plane of reality, which can only be found in his distorted imagination. Jarman shares with audiences what he loves about Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' in the only way he can.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber brings 'The Tempest' to Blu-ray under the distributor's "Kino Classics" label. Housed inside a blue, eco-lite case, the Region A locked, BD50 disc goes straight to the main menu with full-motion clips and the music playing in the background.
Considering the production's limited budget and that it was shot on 16mm film, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode of Jarman's 'Tempest' is rather fantastic. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the high-def presentation is consistent with strong resolution and clarity. Contrast is a bit on the average side but stable and well-balanced with crisp, clean whites. Blacks are true and dependable, giving the darker portions of the screen a striking punch. Much of the movie is shot with lots of shadows, but they don't take away visibility of the background information, unless intentional in the cinematography. The image is awash in natural grain, giving the video an appreciable cinematic quality. Detailing is reasonably sharp and distinct with several revealing sequences throughout. Close-ups in particular, show excellent textural definition of clothing and facial complexions.
The quality of this release continues in the audio department with a strong uncompressed PCM mono soundtrack. The usual culprits, such as hissing and background noise, are still present here as in other releases from Kino, but they're very negligible and easy to forgive, given its source. On the plus side, dialogue is clear and well-prioritized, allowing every word of Shakespeare's poetic lines to be heard. Dynamic range is not very extensive nor is it limited. The original design has never offered much activity, but the little we have is detailed and plainly delivered. Bass is appropriate and hearty for the few bits of action and music there is. Overall, it's a good lossless mix for a dialogue-driven production.
Eccentric British filmmaker Derek Jarman brings his interpretation of William Shakespeare's most unconventional play, 'The Tempest,' to the big screen the only way he knows how. Full of flamboyant, imaginative visuals, this isn't a faithful adaptation as it is Jarman wanting to share with audiences his love of the Bard of Avon and his final play. Considering the source and the production's limited budget, the film actually looks quite nice on Blu-ray and comes with strong audio. Supplements are small but nothing to scoff at, making the overall package a satisfying purchase for fans of Jarman and Shakespeare in general.