Long before Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet attempted to modernize Shakespeare merely through hip choices in casting & costuming, Derek Jarman did much the same for The Tempest . . . with much uglier results. The arthouse British auteur interpreted the classic Shakespeare play as a series of gorgeous & grotesque tableaus set against a Gothic horror backdrop. The Tempest is a little drier & more text-faithful than I would have wanted from Jarman tackling such familiar, academic material, which might be the major way in which Luhrmann’s over-the-top Hollywood Spectacle excess has it bested. Still, the lurid imagery & spiritual decay that flows throughout all of Jarman’s films manages to make the Bard’s culturally over-saturated work his own distinct interpretation.
It would be beside the point to recap the plot of Shakespeare’s The Tempest here, at least not when a link to a Wikipedia article or CliffsNotes refresher would get the gist across just as well. This is less a re-interpretation of the text than it is a 70s-contemporary staging of its exact dialogue. Something I always appreciate about Jarman’s films (especially in my recent watches of The Garden & Jubilee) is how they feel like watching punks play dress-up: a muted, grotesque pleasure that The Tempest dwells on from start to end. I can’t say that any of the performer’s line readings reinvigorated Shakespeare’s words with any newfound fervor, but watching Jarman-regular Jack Birkett eat raw eggs & cackle at his own fart jokes as Caliban is the exact kind of Royal Theatre Geek Show you’d want out of this kind of material. It’s a very dry, calm, by-the-books production for the most part, which only makes its punk-scene casting & occasional absurdist outbursts more of a grotesque intrusion on the material by contrast.
I’ll be honest and admit that the well-behaved, academic approach to Shakespeare’s original text was somewhat of a letdown for me here, as I’m sure I would’ve fallen in love with the film if it were a little more blasphemous in the face of tradition. I’ll even admit that the shamelessly corny glam rock musical interpretation of The Tempest in Hunky Dory was a lot easier for me to latch onto as an audience; ditto Luhrmann’s empty-headed excess in Romeo+Juliet. If you have any affection for Jarman’s arthouse abstractions & debaucherous punk provocations, though, this is an interesting curio within that larger catalog. Just don’t bother with it if you haven’t already fallen in love with the much sharper, more wildly playful Jubilee.