CAPSULE: THE TEMPEST (1979)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Heathcote Williams, Toyah Willcox, Jack Birkett

PLOT: Prospero, a magician and the rightful Duke of Milan, conjures up a tempest to shipwreck

Still from The Tempest (1979)

his usurper on the remote island where his lives with his virgin daughter and the magical creatures he’s enslaved.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Shaking up Shakespeare with a storm of weirdness, Derek Jarman’s The Tempest is an interpretation of the Bard’s final play featuring bizarre costumes, ample nudity, and an out-of-place, out-of-time closing song and dance number. The main argument against it making the List, however, is that this isn’t the weirdest—or even the nudest—adaptation of “The Tempest.”

COMMENTS: “This is as strange a thing as ever I looked on,” says seaman Alonso when he first discovers Caliban. Although Derek Jarman’s wild interpretation of The Tempest may not be quite the strangest thing you’ve ever seen, if you went into it expecting to see a dry Masterpiece Theater-style rendition of Shakespeare’s most fanciful play, you’d likely be shocked. Jarman keeps Shakespeare’s text intact (although it’s truncated for running time), but slowly teases out the hallucinatory elements in the magical story. The movie is set almost entirely in a dusty, abandoned English manner illuminated by candlelight. The early reels court a Gothic horror feel, with the spirit Ariel’s first appearance presaged by poltergeists rattling chandeliers and dramatic flashes of lighting. The makeup and costuming, beginning with Toyah Willcox’ unruly braids cut to uneven lengths and decorated with hanging beads, starts strange and gets ever stranger as the film approaches its baroque climax. The frequent nudity, although always tasteful and rendered with a classical sense of composition, is continually surprising. It’s difficult to imagine in 2012 how shocking the male full-frontals must have seemed in 1979, but the flashback to the obese witch Sycorax breastfeeding her adult son Caliban still delivers a jolt today. More weirdness results from the late appearance of bizarrely costumed carnival dwarfs (some in drag) as fairy spirits of the magical isle, as the movie builds towards its extravagant wedding climax. In this notorious ceremony, a dozen sailors in starched white suits appear from nowhere to perform a style production number, and jazz singer Elisabeth Welch appears in a downpour of flower petals wearing a glittery showgirl headdress to croon the blues number “Stormy Weather.” Although the song title reflects the play title, this mournful tune about lost love is not the ditty most brides want to hear at their wedding reception. The performances in The Tempest are merely adequate. Pop singer Willcox makes for a endearingly sexy Miranda. Jack Birkett’s bald, raw-egg eating Caliban has been criticized as overly grotesque—indeed, at times he comes off like he’s playing Igor in a Frankenstein film—but compared to Heathcote Williams’ bland (and too young) Prospero, he’s a delight. This is not an actor-centered production, and none of the performers threaten to upstage the lush production design and Jarman’s florid imagination. The Tempest may not be as kinky and outlandish as Tromeo and Juliet, but if conventional Shakespeare doesn’t have enough kick for you, this bizarre variation might just be the answer to your Bard blues.

Many critics reflexively describe The Tempest as “homoerotic” because of Jarman’s openly gay lifestyle and past films, but the nudity here is non-sexual, there are as many females as males disrobed in the film, and there are no textual or subtextual homosexual relationships (unless you really stretch things looking for an unrequited Ariel-Prospero passion). This is, demonstrably, Shakespeare’s “strangest” play: the word “strange” appears in The Tempest at least nineteen times, more than in any of his other works.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “…a most bizarre version of Shakespeare–one that’s not for all tastes…”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews (Blu-ray)

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