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TEMPEST, THE (director/writer: Derek Jarman; screenwriter: based on The Tempest by William Shakespeare; cinematographer: Peter Middleton; editors: Leslie Walker /Annette D’Alton; music: Wavemaker; cast: Heathcote Williams (Prospero), Toyah Wilcox (Miranda), Jack Birkett (Caliban), Karl Johnson (Ariel), David Meyer (Ferdinand, Son of King Alonso), Richard Warwick (Antonio, Brother of Prospero), Peter Bull (King Alonso, of Naples), Christopher Biggins (Stephano), Peter Turner (Trinculo), Claire Davenport (Sycorax), Ken Campbell (Gonzalo), Neil Cunningham (Sebastian, Ferdinand’s brother); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Don Boyd/Guy Ford/Mordecai Schreiber; Kino Video; 1979-UK)

“A most bizarre version of Shakespeare–one that’s not for all tastes.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is the personal unique colorful punk interpretation of the Bard’s fanciful last play by the visionary gay Brit filmmaker Derek Jarman (“War Requiem”/”Sebastiane”/”Jubilee”), who died of AIDS in 1994 at age 52. It was shot on location at Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire, giving it an eerie Roman Gothic look that captures a crumbling state of decay. It keeps the Bard’s dialogue and plot intact, but deletes many scenes and alters the remaining scenes with controversial campy dramatics and homoerotic imaginings rendering a most bizarre version of Shakespeare–one that’s not for all tastes, but suited me just fine.

The former Duke of Milan, Prospero, the magician (Heathcote Williams, a real-life stage magician), because of political intrigue (his usurping brother Antonio and the King of Naples plotted against him) lives in squalor for the last 12 years in exile with his unsophisticated virgin teenage daughter Miranda (Toyah Wilcox, pop singer), on a gloomy desolate island in the Northumbrian seacoast, where his oafish deformed servant is Caliban (Jack Birkett), the savage son of the witchSycorax (Claire Davenport). The sorcerer has control of Ariel (Karl Johnson), who he freed from the witch to enslave for himself. Ariel is an airy spirit Prospero uses to do his dirty work and the spirit does so in the hopes of being liberated some day. The effete airy spirit is attractively dressed in an all-white jump suit.

Prospero’s peace is threatened when a sea storm brings the survivors of the shipwreck to his island. Among the survivors are his conniving title stealing brother Antonio (Richard Warwick), his old enemy King Alonso of Naples (Peter Bull) and the king’s naive son Ferdinand (David Meyer), and a pair of drunken sailors Trinculo (Peter Turner) and Stephano (Christopher Biggins). The sailors are befriended by the nutty Caliban, the island’s original ruler until enslaved by Prospero, who comically leads the sailors to take revenge on Prospero and in return the savage promises to be their slave. Meanwhile Ferdinand is enslaved by Prospero, but when Miranda lusts after him and they find they love each other. Ferdinand is accepted as her groom by dad–who now has second thoughts about using magic to get revenge.

The play’s wedding climax, of the marriage between Ferdinand and Miranda, attended by King Alonso, is memorably turned into a song-and-dance number where the elderly black American blues singer Elizabeth Welch, dressed in a shimmering gold costume to look like a sun goddess, delivers an upbeat rendition of Stormy Weather while surrounded by a chorus line of sailors.

The offbeat light-hearted film is a one of kind version of Shakespeare, which is a fun watch because of its startling visuals, its mix of modern and ancient costumes, its lush decor, strange stage-lighting and the Jarman-like absurd characterizations.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”