The Tempest Stormy Weather: Derek Jarman's The Tempest
by William Shakespeare

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Stormy Weather: Derek Jarman's The Tempest

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Diana Harris and MacDonald Jackson, University of Auckland

British filmmaker Derek Jarman died in February 1994. Any comprehensive account of his achievements must include a revaluation of his 1979 screen adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, which anticipated many of the distinctive strategies of Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books (1991). Greenaway's film is hi-tech, with lavish crowd scenes and a kaleidoscopic profusion of images created with the aid of the "digital, electronic Graphic Paintbox."1 Jarman's film was low budget, employing an orthodox mix of "masters, mid-shots and close-ups" (Jarman 194).2 Yet, in their vastly different idioms, both movies dwell on the original script's obsession with the interaction between life, art, dream, and play, subtly shifting through different planes of reality and representation. In filling the frame each director draws on a rich European artistic heritage. Greenaway recalls Piranesi, Bronzino, Da Messina, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Veronese, Rembrandt, Bellini, and others. Jarman playfully alludes to Velázquez's "Las Meninas" and composes candle-lit shots with the balance and beauty of paintings by Caravaggio or De la Tour.

Where Greenaway adds a postmodern self-consciousness about the relations between signifiers and the signified, and the ways in which text, as it is inscribed, conjures a world into being, Jarman's contemporaneity is more "social," the product of an exotic sensibility rather than of a modish intellect.3 Jarman's films have been widely perceived as "statements of the late-1970s and early 1980s British counterculture, intended for punk and gay audiences" (Vaughan and Vaughan 209), and his version of The Tempest certainly re-imagines the play, foregrounding the same-sex relationship between Prospero and Ariel, desentimentalizing the romance of the young lovers, Ferdinand and Miranda, with comedy and burlesque and fun, and emphasizing dream as a Jungian search for self-hood.

Jarman jettisons the bulk of Shakespeare's dialogue and re-orders most of what he keeps. The remains of the play's speeches may be scattered over several film sequences. Gonzalo's amiable garrulousness, for example, is enhanced by being protracted in this way. After Alonso's group arrives on shore in a dinghy, they trek through sandhills toward Prospero's mansion, and Gonzalo's Pollyanna-like chatter as he attempts to cheer the king or expounds his vision of Utopia percolates through three of the sequences showing this journey. We gain the impression that Alonso has an idée fixe, about which he cannot stop talking. Shakespeare's long expository monologues, in which Prospero, in scene ii, tells Miranda of historic grievances, risk an audience's boredom and are thoroughly uncinematic. Jarman avoids tedium by dispersing them over several episodes, extending well into the middle of the film. Like Zeffirelli in his recent Hamlet, Jarman repeatedly breaks Shakespeare's scenes into smaller units, which he interweaves. The effect is to compress the time-scheme of a play that is already one of only two in which Shakespeare preserves the Aristotelian unities,4 and to suggest that several related events are happening at the same time. The film's closing wedding-masque sequence assembles the whole cast and draws all the threads of the plot together.

The opening tempest is itself a challenge to a director. Shakespeare creates it through his dialogue, with the aid of a few primitive sound effects. On the modern stage, designer pyrotechnics and the electronic speaker system are apt to obliterate the words. In the cinema we expect to see a frothing ocean and a masted ship foundering, but may regret the loss of Shakespeare's evocative language and the metaphorical link between the storm and Prospero's inner turmoil. Jarman's solution to the practical problem becomes a key to the main significances of his film. In Prospero 's Books, Greenaway has Gielgud as Prospero speak all the dialogue. Jarman had toyed with...

(The entire section is 5,630 words.)