Monday, March 30, 2009
Derek Jarman's film of The Tempest, William Shakespeare's final play, challenges the idea of the "faithful" literary adaptation. Jarman's marvelous, light-hearted, visually evocative film is, for the most part, true to the text of Shakespeare's play, but the director builds around the text in ingenious ways, creating a dense patchwork that melds his own punk sensibility with the Bard's mystical ode to romance, revenge and redemption. The film is true to the story and structure of the play, which concerns the bitter, exiled sorcerer Prospero (Heathcote Williams), whose lordly title was stolen from him by his conniving brother Antonio (Richard Warwick) and the King of Naples (Peter Bull). Sent away with his young daughter Miranda (Toyah Willcox), Prospero becomes lord of a nearly uninhabited island, where he quickly enslaves Caliban (Jack Birkett), the animalistic son of a witch, and Ariel (Karl Johnson), an elemental spirit of the air who does Prospero's bidding in the hopes of one day earning his freedom. The play opens twelve years after Prospero's exile, when he summons a storm that causes his betrayers, Antonio and the King, to shipwreck upon his island, along with the King's son Ferdinand (David Meyer) and several retainers.
Jarman not only follows this plot fairly closely, but has his characters speaking much of Shakespeare's dialogue without alteration, in all its intricate, stylized poetry. Despite this fealty to its source, The Tempest never feels like anything less than a personal expression of Jarman's vision: a mystical, erotic, visually sumptuous work in which the sensual quality of the imagery is as important to its overall effect as the language of Shakespeare. Filled with flickering candles and ornate decorations, Prospero's island stronghold has a kind of dilapidated grandeur that's matched by the ragged period costumes of the characters. Miranda especially is the film's spirit, a sprightly nymph with a mischievous smile and the dirty beauty of a street urchin. She is the proper heiress to a kingdom but has been raised in cluttered squalor amidst Prospero's dusty libraries, in rooms where elegant furniture sits in a chaos of filth and garbage. She wanders through the castle, and through the film, with her billowing gowns strewn haphazardly around her, playing at being a princess. Her playful spirit and charm animate the film. In one great scene, she practices at descending a staircase while demurely greeting imaginary guests on each side of her — halfway down, she stumbles and falls into an abrupt sitting posture on the steps, her dirty bare feet sticking out from beneath her gown at askew angles.
It's through performances like Willcox's turn as Miranda that Jarman subtly worms his way into this old, well-known material. The acting has a spirit of play and winking slyness about it, a flippant attitude that's not disrespectful towards Shakespeare's text but rather especially attuned to the comic possibilities of these characters. Caliban is an important figure in this respect, and Birkett plays the monstrous slave with leering intensity. His introduction is unforgettable, sitting in front of a fire and eating whole, uncooked eggs, spitting out the cracked shells and letting a dribble of yolk run down his face as he does so. With his blackened teeth and wide, popping eyes, he is a ridiculous figure, a grotesque caricature. Birkett's campy performance finds its match in the duo of drunken sailors who Caliban soon finds himself involved with: Stephano (Christopher Biggins) and Trinculo (Peter Turner). Together, this comic trio attempts to lead a revolt against Prospero, but instead mostly just stumble drunkenly through a series of games of dress-up: their flamboyant performances and proclivity for donning dresses and makeup brings a homoerotic component to their conspiracy.
Jarman's wildly original perspective on this material is equally apparent in the visualization of the flashbacks involving Caliban and his sinister mother, Sycorax (Claire Davenport), who is depicted as a naked witch breast-feeding her adult son and living in a state of savagery. Many later critics have viewed Shakespeare's Tempest in terms of colonialism, with Prospero as the colonial conqueror who takes control of a native land, enslaving its inhabitants with his more sophisticated means, which they tend to view as magic. Jarman's interpretation acknowledges this modern, deconstructionist reading of the play in these scenes, in which Prospero describes himself as redeeming the island from its wild nature. He uses the language of a liberator but only offers a new kind of slavery, freeing the air spirit Ariel from Sycorax's imprisonment but forcing the spirit to obey a new master instead. Despite this nod to the interpretation of The Tempest as a colonialist text, Jarman's own vision of this material is much more in line with the playful sensibility of Shakespeare than with the political shadings layered over the text by subsequent interpreters. He's simply having fun, reveling in the myriad possibilities this play affords for striking imagery. Ariel's assault on the shipwrecked King and his party is in particular a visual tour de force: the spirit appears to them accompanied by a pair of midgets in drag, who claw and howl at the prisoners while the room spins, and Ariel weaves a spell around the group in the form of cobwebs clinging to a chandelier.
Even better is the film's climactic scene, in which Jarman definitively departs from Shakespeare for the staging of the grand ball where Prospero forgives his enemies and announces the impending wedding of his daughter to the King's son Ferdinand. Jarman surrounds this scene, the romantic climax of the film, with a dazzling array of homoerotic imagery, including a sped-up dance featuring a galloping troupe of sailors, exchanging partners and twirling in circles around the throne room. Finally, the singer Elisabeth Welch appears, shimmering in gold like a sun goddess, weaving through the room soulfully singing an upbeat variation on "Stormy Weather," smiling with grace and passing by everyone in turn, putting smiles on their faces with her beautiful voice.
It's a wonderful moment, Jarman's campy, irreverent replacement for Shakespeare's finale, in which Prospero, having used magic to forgive his enemies and send his daughter off into the world with a new husband, gives up his magic arts for good. Jarman elides these scenes, perhaps unwilling to give up magic. Shakespeare's finale has been widely interpreted as the playwright's farewell to the theater, so it's fitting that Jarman, so early in his career, should be unwilling to say his goodbyes to film in the same way. Instead, his film ends in the aftermath of a colorful party, in a room whose floor is littered with multicolored flower petals. It's a fitting closing to a film that celebrates the visual magic of the cinema as thoroughly as the magical arts of Prospero.