The Tempest

August 25, 1979 (Edinburgh International Film Festival) — 95 minutes, color, 35mm, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Fantasy
Jarman’s 3rd feature, revelatory adaptation of Shakespeare’s late masterpiece about powe, love, and redemption.

*PLEASE NOTE* I am in the process of revising this Jarman page, and all of my websites, to be completed in 2021. Thank you for understanding.

FILMS: Shorts | 1. Sebastiane | 2. Jubilee | 3. Tempest | 4. Angelic Conversation | 5. Caravaggio | 6. Last of England | 7. War Requiem | 8. The Garden | 9. Edward II | 10. Wittgenstein | 11. Blue.


In The Tempest (1979), Jarman uses an astonishingly broad stylistic range – from Baroque painting to Gothic melodrama to camp – to explore Shakespeare’s late masterpiece about power and love.

Although Shakespeare’s The Tempest is traditionally classified as one of the Bard’s comedies, it defies reduction with its fantastic range of paradoxes. It is a complex mixture of both “sweet music” and jarring discords, of beauty and horror, of romance and vengeance, of enchanting magic and stark reality. This tantalizing question mark of a play, perhaps more than most, forces each of us to experience it on our own terms, even as it constantly tosses our expectations about. Jarman’s film uncannily creates a vision of the play which is both radically original (even more so than its most famous adaptation, the 1956 science fiction classic Forbidden Planet) yet open enough to allow each viewer to concoct their own reading.

It is easy to see the wisdom in Derek Jarman’s approach to The Tempest, which he first read as a schoolboy: “The magic in the play… stayed with me. I deliberately avoided seeing [it] performed on stage, for fear my inner vision would be destroyed.” Before filming The Tempest in 1979, as his third feature, Jarman had written four very different screen versions over the course of a decade.

Even with his strikingly personal interpretation, Jarman is careful to retain the essence of Shakespeare, the tense yet beautiful interweaving of drama, magic, and poetry, even as he jettisons, or rearranges, much of the text. As Jarman accurately remarked, even as he summarized the play, “The characters in our film speak, they don’t shout, or intone. They communicate with Shakespeare’s language as if it was of today – alive and vibrant. The story is filmed in direct terms. It tells of a remarkable man [the magician and deposed ruler Prospero – Heathcote Williams], his daughter [Miranda – Toyah Willcox], his enemies [his brother Antonio – Richard Warwick and Sebastian – Neil Cunningham, as well as the comical conspirators (see the frame) Caliban – Jack Birkett, Trinculo – Peter Turner, and Stephano – Christopher Biggins], his life and problems on a remote island and the dramatic events which restore him to his former state” as the Duke of Milan.

Like Orson Welles in his 1952 masterpiece Othello, Jarman wanted to make Shakespeare visercally appealing to filmgoers, even as he – an accomplished visual artist and filmmaker – strove to recreate the text in terms of image and sound. For me, he succeeded fantastically on all counts; and this is one of the half-dozen greatest Shakespeare film adaptations. Jarman often shocks viewers, accustomed to “high-toned” productions of the play, with his singular vision. But as each re-viewing of the film makes more apparent, he has created not only great cinema but great Shakespearean cinema too.

Jarman made his Tempest, both literally and metaphorically, a dark film. It is set almost entirely at night – one night, any night, in some timeless parallel world. Gothic, isolated, suspended within its own space, illuminated by flickering candles (with images reminiscent of the Baroque painter Georges de la Tour) and conjured lighting playing on faces, walls, a pendulous chandelier. Like something out of Magritte, the settings have a kind of ghostly elegance, a deep loneliness, a mesmerizing claustrophobia.

The Tempest is Jarman’s most visually accomplished, and audacious, film up to that time. After an arduous search, he found exactly the locations he wanted. For exteriors, he chose Bamburgh Castle, which for centuries has towered over the Northumberland Sea, rising above the barren sand flats in aloof splendor. Interiors were shot at the labyrinthine Stoneleigh Abbey, near Coventry, Warwickshire in England. It is a rambling, fire-gutted Paladian mansion with corridors which seem to stretch to infinity, and rooms opening out of rooms like Chinese puzzle boxes. In other words, it perfect fit Jarman’s conception for the film. As he once explained, “I never did visualize The Tempest on an exotic island of the Southern seas. For me the play exists within its own isolation. The setting is timeless – a twilight never-never land. When I saw Stoneleigh, I knew this was the place.” The cast and crew lived and worked at the desolate abbey throughout the month-long shoot.

Jarman augmented the fantastical mood by not setting his film, as one might expect, in the Elizabethan period of Shakespeare, or in modern times, or in any one era. Rather it unfolds in an indistinct past, using a conglomerate of many styles (from medieval vestments to Ariel’s white jump suit), to underscore, and to play with, the timelessness of Shakespeare’s vision.

Music plays a supremely important role in the film, as it does in all of Jarman’s work, and it ranges from a hurdy-gurdy tune cranked out by Caliban to ethereal electronic vibrations (by co-composers Brian Hodgson and John Lewis) to bouncy operetta tunes. Of course, music, poetry and song are woven throughout Shakespeare’s play (which may orignally have been performed for the marriage of gay King James I’s daughter). But Jarman has his film bursting with music at every opportunity, from the “sweet airs” mentioned in the text to ominous rumblings which seem to rise directly out of the magical island itself. When Ariel frightens the silliest of all conspirators – Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano – he does so solely through the sound of magnified roars and growls. And the film’s healing penultimate scene can only be described as a show-stopping grand finale. Jarman pulls out all of the stops, as the diva-like Goddess (played by legendary African-American musical comedy star Elisabeth Welch) sashays through a bevy of sailor boys in a one-of-a-kind rendition of her signature tune, “Stormy Weather” (which is another kind of tempest) – all staged with eye-popping colors and swirls of confetti.

That over-the-top finale indicates another of the film’s most intriguing tacks: Madness. Throughout the film, there is an aura of insanity, always threatening to break through. And sometimes it does. Who can ever forget the early scene in which we see Caliban (actor/dancer/mime Jack Birkett, who played Borgia Ginz in Jubilee) in front of a roaring fire eating a raw egg – the sound of the shell cracking – the yolk dripping down his chin – his mad empty eyes – and the sound of his cackling. Without using dialogue, that combination of horror and pathos is cinematic exposition at its best.

Another key figure of madness is Miranda. As performed by Toyah Willcox (who played the character named Mad in Jubilee), this Prospero’s daughter is far from the demure maiden of traditional stagings. Jarman and Willcox’s creation is very much flesh and blood – albeit with a bizarre taste in hairdos – sensually in love with the handsome young castaway, Ferdinand (David Meyer).

Jarman’s vision of the film is perfectly captured in the unorthodox male lead, Heathcote Williams as a surprisingly young Prospero (who bears more than a little resemblance to the popular Dr. Who character from British television). Williams is not an actor per se, but a professional magician and dramatist (his 1970 comedy AC/DC won every award for Best Play both in London and at New York’s Off-Broadway). Jarman said that he cast Williams “because he is Prospero,” and I am inclined to agree. Williams brings a unique combination of menace, tenderness, and sheer loopy brilliance to the role. He provides a rock solid foundation for all of Jarman’s visual and dramatic experimentation.

On one level, the entire film is a distending mirror of Prospero’s mind. It begins with him simultaneously dreaming and invoking the fatal storm which sets the story in motion, and it ends with him, eyes closed, sitting in the dark, deserted ballroom.

After the ‘happy ending’ and after Ariel has been freed, we hear Prospero’s thoughts in voice over: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.”

Of course, Shakespeare includes that famous speech, delivered by Prospero to all of the assembled characters, much earlier, in Act IV, Scene 1. But that does not stop Jarman from rearranging the tex to make this his Tempest almost as much as Shakespeare’s.

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  • Directed by Jarman
  • Adapted for the screen by Jarman, from William Shakespeare’s play
  • Produced by Don Boyd, Guy Ford & Mordecai Schreiber
  • Cinematography by Peter Middleton
  • Production Design by Yolanda Sonnabend
  • Art Direction by Ian Whittaker
  • Sound Editor Sarah Vickers
  • Edited by Lesley Walker
  • Original Music by Brian Hodgson & John Lewis

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  • NOTE: character descriptions (e.g., “Caliban, a savage and deformed slave”) are by Jarman.
  • Heathcote Williams as Prospero, the Right Duke of Milan
  • Toyah Willcox as Miranda, his daughter
  • Richard Warwick as Antonio, his brother
  • Peter Bull as Alonso, the King of Naples
  • David Meyer as Ferdinand, his son
  • Neil Cunningham as Sebastian, his brother
  • Ken Campbell as Gonzalo, an honest councillor
  • Karl Johnson as Ariel, an airy spirit
  • Jack Birkett as Caliban, a savage and deformed slave
  • Christopher Biggins as Stephano, a drunken mariner
  • Peter Turner as Trinculo, his friend
  • Elisabeth Welch as A Goddess

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Original Video Release (Used for This Review)

Kino Video‘s DVD release of The Tempest offers good sound and picture, especially considering that it was originally shot in 16mm before being blown up to 35mm for theatrical release. The DVD also includes some exceptional supplements, including the original 1979 press kit and three fascinating, and rare, early experimental short films by Jarman, made between 1971 and 1973, which I have listed below.

  • Presented in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1
  • Audio remastered in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
  • Includes three rare, early short experimental films by Jarman: “A Journey to Avebury” (1971), “Garden of Luxor” (1972; aka “A Garden at Luxor” or “Burning the Pyramids”), and “Art of Mirrors” (1973)
  • Complete text of the original press kit, with detailed information about the production, cast, and crew
  • Film divided into 12 chapters
  • $29.95 suggested retail
Jim's Reviews / Jarman
JIm’s Reviews / Jarman

Reviewed June 22, 2003 / Revised October 18, 2020

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