To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Derek Jarman’s ‘The Tempest’ is one of the worst homework assignments we’ve ever received

Receiving a movie to watch as a homework assignment creates mixed emotions. On the one hand, yay, you get to watch a movie instead of something that requires serious effort. On the other hand, boo, a movie can take a long time and it’s hard to carve out time in the day to actually sit down and watch the thing. However, all of this is fine as long as the movie is good. When the movie is bad, you have a different situation altogether.

The two of us found ourselves in this situation last week, when we were assigned a film version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” for class. “The Tempest” follows the story of Prospero, who was deposed and exiled from his dukedom with his daughter Miranda. They wash up on an island, where Prospero uses his magic (he’s magic, by the way) to help them survive. This includes enslaving the spirit Ariel to do his bidding, and enslaving the island’s only corporeal inhabitant, Caliban, after Caliban tries to force himself on Miranda. Twelve years later, the people who deposed Prospero sail by the island, and Prospero shipwrecks them and seeks to exact his revenge. It’s a good play with a bittersweet conclusion. The film version we had to watch was directed by Derek Jarman and came out in 1979. Both of us are Shakespeare nerds, but neither of us had encountered this movie previously. Alas, after watching it, we discovered that there was a reason why neither of us had heard of the film.

Why? It sucks.

Now, that may seem harsh, but this movie was pretty bad. “The Tempest” is a gorgeous play, and adapting it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge. Right? To be honest, you just need to shoot the play on a pretty location with good acting, and voila! You have a good movie. Unforutnately, Jarman did not seem interested in doing the play, he did not have a pretty location and the acting was not good.

How bad was the acting, you ask? Good question. The answer is terrible. Heathcote Williams played Prospero, although “played” may be generous here. To say that Williams recited Prospero’s lines in a monotone, expressionless voice is probably more accurate. Karl Johnson as Ariel mostly wandered around in a white suit with a vacant expression. Jack Birkett as Caliban was at least acting, but his choices made Caliban seem less like a character and more like a caricature. Toyah Willcox as Miranda was trying to deliver something resembling a performance, but she was sabotaged by the directing, which seemed determined to simultaneously infantilize and hyper-sexualize Miranda for an overall feeling of “yuck.” The rest of the acting was either flat, over-the-top or just plain old bad.

Now, poor acting can sometimes be lifted if the film at least has a good idea at its core, or a pretty aesthetic. This film had neither. “The Tempest” takes place on a Mediterranean island. It mentions that it is on an island quite a bit just so you don’t forget. A good chunk of the play takes place outdoors. So the logical choice was clearly to film the whole thing in an abandoned gothic mansion. Because why not? The whole film is very dark and dingy, without a decent sense of place. At one point, Ariel speaks out of a hay bale at one point for no discernable reason. How did they get a hay bale in the middle of a gothic mansion? Who knows! Who cares! Quit asking questions and look at Miranda standing on the creaky rocking horse.

This adaptation (if we can rightly call it an adaptation; the words “interpretation” or “appropriation” may be more apt), as earlier mentioned, struggled to do the play properly. Several scenes either happened out of order, were cut down severely or were removed from the film entirely. Shakespeare’s plays often run over two hours, while this film’s runtime is a neat one hour and 35 minutes. We will be the first to admit that it is possible to do Shakespeare well while reordering or making cuts to certain scenes for audience understanding, and happens more frequently than one might think in modern productions of Shakespeare’s plays. However, Jarman’s edits, cuts and shifts only added more confusion to our watching experience. There were also the addition of scenes that don’t take place in the play at all, such as a flashback to Sycorax’s (Caliban’s mother) presence on the island, which was both unnecessary (as the language Prospero uses to scare Ariel into remembering Sycorax’s reign is effective and quite descriptive) and jarring (as it involved far too much nudity; that is, none at all is needed to get Prospero’s point across). There was generally more gratuitous nudity in this film than expected. For the record, absolutely no nudity was expected. For another example, audiences’ first introduction to Ferdinand, Miranda’s love interest, is him climbing out of the ocean after the titular tempest, entirely nude and holding a sword. This is also confusing on its own, as the rest of the survivors of the shipwreck emerge fully clothed, and with their clothes even spiffed up and cleaner than they were prior to the storm, thanks to Prospero’s magic. If you for some reason choose to watch this film after reading this article, please do not do so in public. 

Problems also arise when examining audio and visuals of the film; as with many of Shakespeare’s plays, modern directors will try to add their own spins and takes on these classic works to keep them “fresh” for contemporary audiences. However, Shakespeare’s plays are classics for a reason—their themes, stories and characters have impacted millions of people over hundreds of years. “The Tempest” especially falls prey to this phenomenon, as its central character is a magic wielder, so there will always be attempts to highlight the spectacle of this magic and make the performance visually stunning. This film does in fact catch one’s eye, but not in a way that makes you want to keep watching. Magic in the film is portrayed with messy editing (some of which can be forgiven, as Jarman was working on a low budget), choppy jump cuts of making people disappear, fish-eye lenses with rainbow film to capture dancing spirits and use of simple props that fail to capture the grandeur of what Prospero’s magic is made out to be. Visuals are accompanied by sometimes tinny audio recordings, and the use of either music that fails to fit the aesthetic of the rest of the film, or uncomfortably long silences. Needless to say, the visual landscape and soundscape of this film are disjointed in such a way that they fail to cohere anything left of a potential positive viewing experience.

Now, this movie was an effective homework assignment. It certainly got us and the rest of our class thinking, and led to plenty of discussion between members of the class. It also made us reflect more on what our interpretations of “The Tempest” are. So assigning this movie was pedagogically sound. But the experience of watching it was deeply unpleasant and at times nonsensical, and certainly not an experience we wish to repeat any time soon.

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