The Tempest ***
Directed by: Julie Taymor.
Written By: Julie Taymor based on the play by William Shakespeare.
Starring: Helen Mirren (Prospera), Ben Whishaw (Ariel), Djimon Hounsou (Caliban), Felicity Jones (Miranda), Reeve Carney (Prince Ferdinand), David Strathairn (King Alonso), Chris Cooper (Antonio), Tom Conti (Gonzalo), Alan Cumming (Sebastian), Russell Brand (Trinculo), Alfred Molina (Stephano).
Julie Taymor doesn’t do anything half assed – when she makes a movie, she goes all in and creates completely unique movies. This was the case in her first three films – the Shakespeare adaption Titus (the most violent Shakespeare movie I’ve ever seen), the artist biopic Frida (which was as beautiful as the paintings she was showing) and the Beatles musical Across the Universe (which found interesting new ways to look at the most famous songs of the 20th Century). In her new film, The Tempest, she returns to Shakespeare, and once again, boldly molds the master’s final play into her own vision. Many critics have hated this adaptation – but while it is certainly a flawed film, it is also one that refuses to leave my mind – one that takes a masterpiece and puts an entirely different spin on it.
The Tempest has always wildly been seen as a play about forgiveness. The Sorcerer Prospero has been banished to an island with his daughter, now a teenager, when his brother Antonio, betrays him to get the Dukedom of Milan for himself. Spending 12 years on a deserted island, with only his daughter Miranda, his slave Caliban and his spirit friend Ariel by his side, Prospero becomes more powerful in his abilities. When a ship that has Antoino aboard, along with the King of Naples Alonso and his son, Prince Ferdinand, comes near, Prospero whips up a storm – not to kill them, but to draw them to the island, where he plans to get what is rightfully his back. In the end, he does, but not through violence but through forgiveness and compromise.
The most significant change Taymor makes to the play is casting Helen Mirren in the lead role, thus transferring Prospero to Prospera. This is a major change, as it affects the relationship between Prospera and every other character in the play. This version of The Tempest becomes a feminist version – with Antonio accusing his sister as witchcraft, something that may well have gotten her killed, to steal what is rightful hers. The ending is not so much about forgiveness – but is really Prospera sacrificing herself for the good of her child. Everything she has worked for her entire life, she now has to abandon. A man would not have to do this, but Prospera is a woman, and as such, she has to humble herself.
The film, as any directed by Taymor, is visually stunning and alive. She doesn’t quite have the budget that big Hollywood movies do, so the CGI effects are somewhat lacking in parts, but overall it is quite amazing what she comes up with. The biggest achievement is the portrayal of Ariel as a wispy creature who floats in and out of scenes, growing, multiplying, and disappearing at will, as he does his master’s bidding. Taymor works extremely hard with the costume designers, makeup artists, art directors and cinematographers to give each character their own look and feel. Mirren, with her somewhat boyish haircut, and garments that a man could probably wear (at least near the beginning of the film) is trying to be masculine and powerful – which she is. Felicity Jones, as Miranda, is dressed is flighty summer dresses, and no shoes – and used her innocent wide eyes to great effect. Djimon Hounsou, as the slave Caliban, is encrusted with dirt and grime, making him even darker than normal.
The film’s acting is somewhat of a mixed bag unfortunately. Helen Mirren is amazing as Prospera – as powerful as any man could be in the role. Ben Whishaw has a nearly impossible role as Ariel, but somehow pulls it off. Hounsou is excellent as Caliban – all crazy eyed. And Felicity Jones is so wide eyed naïve, but it’s perfect for Felicity. It should be noted that both Alfred Molina and Russell Brand (surprisingly) are effective as the bumbling duo of Stephano and Trinculo, but their scenes, meant as comic relief, often drag the movie to a screeching halt. Reeve Carney, as Prince Ferdinand, tries to match Jones for wide eyed innocence, and comes up short. The old pro Tom Conti, as Gonzalo, keeps his section moving briskly – which is good because he shares all his scenes with David Straithairn, Chris Cooper and Alan Cumming – all of which are good actors, but seem to be sleepwalking through their roles without any real thought or emotion.
Yet what makes the movie for me is Mirren, and what her casting does to the relationships in the movie – relationships that have been defined by hundreds of years of Shakespeare scholarship are completely turned on their head. Miranda is no longer just her father’s chip to get himself what he wants – but because a more defined character – one that Prospera tries to protect. The film lingers over a scene of Miranda playing chess with Ferdinand, especially in a moment when Miranda catches him cheating, and playfully admonishes him. Mirren’s reaction to this moment is brilliant – she is seeing the beginning of Ferdinand cheating Miranda out of what is hers, just like her brother did to her, but is powerless to stop it. The relationship between Propsera and Ariel take on different dimensions as well – she is more playful with him, less harsh, and more sensual – stringing him along to get him to do what she wants. He isn’t afraid of her as much as he is in awe of her, and she uses this. The relationship between Propsera and Caliban is certainly much different. You get the impression that what brought about Prospera’s decision to bring the boat to her was Miranda’s sexual maturity – highlighted by the fact that Caliban tried to make a move on her, which is what got him banished to the cave in the first place. But there is also a feeling of perhaps jealously in Prospera – the final scene in the film where she acknowledges “this dark creature is mine” lingers a little longer between just Prospera and Caliban – and sexual tension is strongly implied. These are subtle changes that casting a woman allows Taymor to bring forth – and that she does it all without changing the dialogue (expect Prospera for Prospero) is remarkable.
For many people, Shakespeare will always be something to get through. They studied it in high school, perhaps even University, and then forgot it. But his work is still relevant and poetic today. And yet, I am at a point where I think that a strictly classical interpretation of his work no longer really does anything for me cinematically anymore. You need a new angle. And Taymor has now accomplished that with not just one but two Shakespeare plays. Yes, The Tempest can go wildly over the top, too many scenes drag onto for too long (pretty much everything involving Brand and Molina or Straithairn and Cooper), and yet it is visually alive and constantly fascinating. For better or worse, this is not the Shakespeare you studied in high school.