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I'm amazed that of all the reviews I've looked at nobody seems to have noticed one of the main points of this film, or at least how I saw it. It seems like one big homosexual fantasy, camp clothing, a glorified nude Ferdinand, a definite sexual tension between Ariel and Prospero, and as a final climax, a group of men in tight sailor suits dancing the hornpipe. This whole approach, once you get used to it, provides you with all sorts of fantastic scenes and images. The sight of an innocent Ariel being pulled towards a disgusting nude Sycorax in order to perform "her earthy and abhorr'd commands", is one of the darkest I've ever scene in a Shakespeare film. However by the end of the film I'd grown tired of the style and the final hornpipe dance was just too much to take. Still overall its an interesting interpretation of the play.
Into this primordial mix, add some seventeenth century magic, and you
have Shakespeare's "The Tempest", a play whose themes are: freedom,
temperance, repentance, and forgiveness. The main difference between
Shakespeare's play and Derek Jarman's film is, of course, the nearly
four hundred years of change in theatrics that separate the two
Jarman's version tries to adhere to the play, in that the film uses quasi-Elizabethan linguistics, which renders the dialogue difficult to understand. The play's intent is still intact in the film, if a little obscured by the language, and is conveyed mostly through the acting and the cinematography, though "adapted" in style to a more contemporary audience. Hence, the film's inventive finale features a vocal rendition of "Stormy Weather", a modern metaphor for a message that spans the ages.
Even with the updated visuals, this film is going to be a bit much for most viewers. It is just too out of sync with what modern audiences expect. On the other hand, for those few who appreciate Shakespeare, the film can be insightful, with the proviso that it is not "pure" (or literal) Shakespeare.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Thinking about film can occasionally be dangerous. Some films are designed to trigger this, but once in a while some rather simple film unintentionally leads me into uncharted territory. This IS a simple, unassuming film, but it prompted more rumination than say Branagh's `The Tempest' cleverly masquerading as `Dracula.'
I have had only one experience with Jarman, with his `Wittgenstein,' which actually offended me with its lack of nuance. Jarman is that kind of artist who has a single impulse, one thing to say and adapts any material to support it. Like others of this type - Stone, Spike, Campion - that impulse is richer than a mere political view and their expressive talent is similarly rich. But no matter how technically sweet their expression, the fact remains that it is applied to a view of the world that bleaches rather than distills, simplifies rather than clarifies and dulls into stereotype instead of sharpening into archetype.
Shakespeare works with ideas; those ideas have agency, engage in being themselves and weave their own tapestry in a spirit-like world, somewhat independent of human action. He expresses that tapestry in words where the manifold ambiguities and multiple threads reinforce each other, idea and meaning. Those words necessitate characters and situations and such, but characters are mere parts in a celestial machine. `The Tempest' is, to my mind, the most perfect and self-referential of his constructions: the one most concerned with its own nature, creation and structure. It is bottomless, worthy of exploration for years.
Now, along comes a stage tradition that believes the entire world of drama revolves around characters, the way they are written and played. Unfortunately, when actors hijack Shakespeare, they turn the equation on its head. Suddenly the tapestry of finely spun ideas has to be reduced to a few strong, obvious threads in order to `explain' and support the plot. So `Romeo' becomes a love story, `Hamlet' about indecision, and `Tempest' about revenge. It is a travesty as blunt as TeeVee wrestling. So-called schools conspire with the selfishness of the theater market to perpetuate this.
Now here's my dilemma. I liked this production; I really did. Miranda is supposed to be 14, sexually pure, and the `white space' on the conceptual palette. Greenaway's `Prospero's Books' - the best film Tempest by far - understood this. Around this center of discovery, which includes us the audience, swirls all sorts of confabulated issues, cosmic and trivial. At least in the play.
Jarman gives us a different type of center: a buxom, sexy punk rocker who has the best understanding in the cast of vocal sculpting and presence. And at the same time, Jarman so simplifies the play and characters (by omission, by making things `clear,' by using unsophisticated language, by giving each character a `role') that he turns the whole construction on is head. Everything else is white space EXCEPT her. She is the magician. This is truly an unsettling notion. All the swishy dancing at the end is mere background noise to this dangerous notion.
The photography and staging is a treat unto itself. Of all his plays, this one is the most difficult to stage because Shakespeare himself was struggling with the new technologies of the art. He created all sorts of hooks for effects, and much of the action depends on those effects. Jarman's notion is inspired, using the abbey as he does. It is perfect in its own way. Miranda's costume - the only one that matters - together with Ferdinand's nudity is pretty effective.
So where I was expecting Shakespeare's engrossing insights on the superficialities of the world, I instead find myself captivated by that very world. It may take some time to recover.
See this and imagine the perfect film Tempest. At the moment, I would include this dual, dangerous notion of passive/aggressive, sexuality in the girl as part of the ambiguity, something Shakespeare couldn't do (but would if he were here today). It would be between Jarman's lines and those of Larry Clark. It would be animated in the manner of `Sprited Away' (itself a version of the Tempest) but all players would be nude. It would have grand political clockworks like `Ran` and simple, imaginative love like Holly Golighty's. It would have the literary layering and emphasis on image-then-language of Greenaway. It would have all the special effects machinery of the most popular current version of `The Tempest,' `The Matrix' (without the guns and glasses), and by this I mean not the effects of the movie but of the world within. And it would be a serial.
Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 4: Worth watching.
The stuff dreams are made of. A complete retelling of the play as a dream of vengeance: will baffle purists, but will delight the open-minded. A superb effort: great cinematography, acting, and script. 11-stars...***********
The Tempest has been interpreted in many different ways ranging from more or less traditional views as dealing with Art to more post-modern approaches that like to dissect the play along post-colonial, feminist, gender or deconstructionist lines. The reason why Jarman's version left me fairly cold is that I didn't have a clue what he was on about. What is the underlying vision/idea/concept behind this rendering of Shakespeare? The previous reviewers do not get much further than revenge tragedy, punk show, but surely there is more to it, isn't there? This is not to say that there is no vision here, just that I was hard put to discover it. Be that as it may, there are still things to enjoy. The punk flavour is refreshing and funny. Toyah Wilcox as Miranda and Jack Birkett as Caliban are wonderful. I did not much care about Williams as Prospero ... not enough magic I suppose. The switches between the old monastery/castle and the (very English) world outside can be a little unsettling at times, but I guess that is intentional. All in all, interesting but not quite the success I had hoped it might be (particularly after seeing Jarman's Caravaggio).
Derek Jarman's take on Shakespeare makes it into something of a punk
symphony, without sacrificing the heart of the play. His cast are mostly
very good especially Heathcote Williams as Prospero, Toyah as Miranda, and
Karl Johnson as Ariel and the bits that are added fit in well, especially
Elisabeth Welch's appearance singing Stormy Weather'.
Comedy light relief is provided by Ken Campbell and Christopher Biggins as the shipwrecked drunks finding themselves on Prospero's enchanted island, with Jack Birkett as a creepy Caliban.
The film keeps the interest by using the unexpected it may miss the point of the quieter moments of the play but makes up for this by its sheer inventiveness. Even the songs are treated well with Johnson's sharp suited sprite showing a mischievous streak which works perfectly. All this is covered with a queer gloss which informs the play with a new perspective.
"Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc'd it to you, trippingly on
the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as
lief the town-crier spoke my lines."
Those are the directions that Hamlet gives the players on how to perform the Mousetrap. While the rhythms of Elizabethan English are difficult for Americans, they seems to come naturally for British actors, and those here perform it well enough.
The problems with this production arise, as they often do for THE TEMPEST, from the director's efforts to make it visually striking. Because of the magic that lies at the heart of Shakespeare's autumnal work, its gorgeous language has fallen prey to people who think the best way to stage it is to think what Quentin Crisp would sneer at as too camp and turn it up a couple of notches. One Shakespeare in the Park staging required a dozen people to play Ariel, including a Sumo wrestler; and Peter Greenaway's gloss on the play, PROSPERO'S BOOK, is so bad that when I saw it with some friends, I disrupted the occasion by guffawing at the over-the-top images. They show up here, too.
What all these geniuses fail to realize is that the play is a boy-meets-girl story, something Shakespeare wrote several dozen times. At its core is a coming-of-age story for Miranda, an adolescent girl who is old enough to leave her father. She is confronted by various male archetypes before settling on the only boy her own age. The Bard of Avon's message is so normal, that like should marry like, that youth calls to youth and that Show Business is the process of taking these ordinary and important stories and making us pay for them by wrapping them in mystery ... well, so normal that people miss the point.
The play's real magic is the story of Rapunzel and Snow White and all the other fairy tales which Bruno Bettelheim has shredded to show their symbolic content. That and the language. These should be enough for anyone like me, who cares for these things. It's too bad that the people who produced this version either don't care about Shakespeare or think that no normal person will.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
An amazing film, I've only just seen it and I already want to see it again. I'd never heard of Derek Jarman before I saw this film but now I am, I can't wait to see his others. The film takes a whole new perspective of Shakespeare's The Tempest, I'm sure he'd have appreciated it for Jarman's use of the the play's themes of love, magic, darkness and atmospheric tension. OK, OK there may have been a bit of nudity in the film which I hadn't really anticipated but it didn't offend me, it just surprised me and made the film more unpredictable. One Spoiler (for those of a nervous disposition: Fast forward the flashback scene with Sycorax & Caliban and Ariel as their slave, its pretty graphic. Overall, if you are starting to find Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare performances flaccid and monotonous then you need to see this film. Fantastic and surreal, it'll blow you away, but only if you let it. Have an open mind - and then let this film work it's magic on you.
For me, the Tempest and its characters (by which I mean the admirable
ones) are like old friends. Ever since I first began to experience the
play through acting classes (I played Ferdinand) I found myself
immediately caught up in the fantastic world that Shakespeare created.
I can distinctly remember one student deciding not to play Ferdinand
after all, and so I took the stage and had the honor of playing
opposite an excellent Miranda.
One of the virtues that a great friend has is that you can never fully know them - there is always something you can discover about their character. A film production of the Tempest of quality is thus like a visit to an old friend, dear to one's heart: each visit presents one with new perspective on the memory we had of the work. With Prospero's Books, the ritual and the elegance of the play was emphasized, the exuberant celebration of art within the art. Here, we see a vision as esoteric mysticism, with lovingly crafted interiors full of candles and chalk diagrams on floors, more Aleister Crowley than Naples nobleman. It also made me reconsider - why was it that Prospero was cast out of Naples? His magical power is so palpable in this production that it makes one wonder whether it was just politics that doomed Prospero to exile, but rather the fact of his difference from his peers. So, in the real world, he suffered. Was cast out, powerless to change the wrong to the right. All of the villains in this play, whether they realize it or not, act in accordance to creating a more pain-filled, hell of a world - it is always in the interest of the oppressor to make life on Earth closer to hell. But Prospero manages to bring these terrestrial villains into his island, the realm where he has (absolute) dominion.
Shakespeare brings his audience to the theater, the realm where Shakespeare dictates the events, the words, the outcomes. Shakespeare is, of course, Prospero - but what this film adaptation does that really honors the text is to make Prospero so sympathetic such a figure of reason, despite the fact that he is surrounded by what society calls irrational (astrological texts, alchemical symbols, magical diagrams, etc.). Is it more rational to be a man of the cloth and murder, or to be a heretic and work towards the righting of wrongs? Prospero IS a heretic, for the reason he abandons his magic is not because the books will lose their value in Naples, but because they are not necessary anymore - the world itself - has become the magic of the books.
In Hamlet, Hamlet presents a play to his peers. The play accuses his fellows of conspiring against others for their own advancement. The reaction of the audience varies: while Ophelia is puzzled, Claudius reacts with stunned shock. This happens within the play, and then Shakespeare has this play performed for the men of his time. Did Shakespeare watch for their reactions? In the tempest, Prospero lives the play he is constructing, and we live it with him. How do we react? Do you react with simple delight at the happy ending? Are you upset and shocked by the strangeness of this production, which is entirely fitting given the source material? Do you feel sad at the fact that this little life, the play, is rounded with a sleep, as transient as it is eternal? The tragedy is that Shakespeare creates a paradise of reason and hope for mankind's life on Earth but man is weak, and unwilling to realize it in favor of petty power struggles. We have Claudiuses.
Like a good friend, this film is not without its flaws. I disagree with the choice to paint some scenes entirely in blue. The dance of the mariners is rather tangential. But at the heart this is truly The Tempest, and one of its many faces.
Derek Jarman has shown us time and time again that dialog is not his strong suit. He is a painter, and paint he does. His films are almost always visually splendid, but about as exciting to watch as paint that is already dry. Watch his movies in fast forward, the really fast setting that you can only get on DVD. In The Tempest, Jarman does very little with the script or the characters, using them as simply a lattice to hang a very long and well-constructed cinematographic frame. He even goes so far as to contradict Shakespeare's original script to achieve these excrucriatingly slow and lifeless scenes. There is none of the romance, magic, trickery, or urgency the script calls for, little spontaneity, and the character of Caliban in particular is reduced to a quivering and insane idiot of sorts, similar to Gaveston in Jarman's Edward II. It is too bad that this is just about the only film version of The Tempest available.
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