Kino Lorber // 1979 // 95 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // August 8th, 2012
We are such stuff as dreams are made on. And our little life is rounded with a sleep.
I really don't like Shakespeare in cinema. Better put, I see absolutely no reason why people make traditional adaptations of his plays for the screen. They were meant to be seen on the stage, so see them on the stage. I do appreciate, though, when a director takes the original ideas of Shakespeare's plays and extracts something very different. That's why the only really traditional adaptation I care about is Polanski's Macbeth and my favorites are things like Titus, Prospero's Books, and The Tempest, as directed by Derek Jarman (The Last of England). As it goes, I'm not even that big a fan of the original play; I enjoy plenty a lot more, but both Peter Greenaway and Jarman, in their respective films, took wild, and wildly different, approaches to The Tempest, and both are a delight to watch. Prospero's Books, unfortunately, has yet to receive a high-definition transfer, but Derek Jarman's The Tempest is finally out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.
The magician Prospero (Heathcote Williams, Basic Instinct 2) has been exiled to an elaborate island mansion with his daughter Miranda (Toyah Willcox, Quadrophenia) by Antonio (Richard Warwick, If...), his brother, and Alonso (Peter Bull, Tom Jones), the king of Naples. When Prospero gets word that they are together on a ship nearing the island, he enlists the spirit Ariel (Karl Johnson, Hot Fuzz) to brew a storm that will wreck them onto the island. The king's son wanders off and becomes Prospero's prisoner, while the king and the brother wander the island and find Caliban (Jack Birkett, Jubilee), Prospero's beastly slave. Together with him, they conspire to kill Prospero, but the magician still has a few tricks up his sleeve.
On the whole, this version of The Tempest is fairly faithful in language and story to the original, but the focus is drastically changed so that it resembles more a revenge story than it does the exploration of life and art like most versions of the play. Jarman, as he was wont to do, amplifies the grotesqueries and turns Shakespeare's original into a queer punk spectacle and there's nothing else quite like it.
The big setting change takes the audience from the whole island to a mansion, which allows Jarman to keep the story appropriately small; not that Shakespeare's plot needed shrinking, but it allows the director to get right to business without having to deal much with setting. The only indication of an outside world is some intentionally obvious stock footage of the shipwreck, everything else takes place in and around the mansion. Scenes are naturally lit, sometimes simply by candlelight, giving it a moodiness that fits really well with the story.
It also serves to accentuate the bizarre additions Jarman makes to the story, including the scene of the evil mother Sycorax (Claire Davenport) nursing Caliban, her adult son, while trying to physically enslave a nude Ariel. With that, as well as the big capper featuring a team of sailors dancing a hornpipe to famed British cabaret singer Elisabeth Welch singing "Stormy Weather." It's probably the strangest ending to any Shakespeare play in history. Shakespeare's work was a lot more playful and irreverent than he's often given credit for, and I think he would have genuinely approved of Jarman's take on his play.
Kino Lorber's Blu-ray of The Tempest may not quite be the reference disc I was hoping for, but it's still very fine. The 1.33:1/1080p transfer makes the film look better than it ever has, with beautiful coloring, black levels that are nice and clear (especially important with the natural lighting), and a strong filmic grain. There are a few instances of dirt on the print, but nothing that's terribly distracting. Only so much could have been done in the mono sound mix, but as it stands, it's fine. It's been cleaned up a little, so there's little in the way of backing noise, but it's merely a standard track that represents a marginal upgrade over previous releases. For extras, Kino has included three short films from early in Jarmans career, which are presented without sound. They are A Journey to Avebury (1971), Garden of Luxor (1972), and Art of Mirrors (1973). They are interesting and reveal some of his early artistic goals, making it a nice inclusion, if a sparsely supplemented disc.
Like most of Derek Jarman's work, The Tempest is strange and difficult to access, but remains one of my favorite Shakespeare adaptations in all of film. Someone looking for a cinematic version that utilizes the pure words of The Bard should look elsewhere, because Jarman has a lot to say about the play which has little to do with the original work. If you like your Shakespeare a little more wild than Kenneth Branagh, though, this is likely the version for you.
Review content copyright © 2012 Daryl Loomis; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Short Films