When I heard that Julie Taymor was making “The Tempest,” the most magic and pageant-filled play in Shakespeare’s canon, I immediately thought: Wow! Puppets! Psychedelic animation! A surrealistic special effects bonanza with visual poetry to complement the verse…”
Well, there are some wonderful sets and a couple of neat tricks, and also the odd bits of very cheesy CGI, but for the most part, Taymor has built her film with the values of theatrical purist, centered around a masterful ensemble cast and their interpretations of the text.
Screenplay by: Julie Taymor, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Starring: Helen Mirren, Felicity Jones, Djimon Hounsou
It’s hard to argue with putting the text and the characters front in center in a Shakespeare production—but with “The Tempest” on screen, there are some tricky decisions. This is a play that opens with a shipwreck created through dialogue—a treat in a playhouse but unnecessary in a film when you can show a shipwreck more vividly than it can be described. It’s a play with a first act overburdened with relentless exposition. Taymor largely rejects the obvious cinematic solution to this challenge, flashbacks with voice-overs, in favor of real-time speeches.
“The Tempest,” thought to be written at the end of Shakespeare’s career partly around a desire to showcase his mastery of stagecraft, features long interludes in which spirits create elaborate visual illusions to amaze, delight and terrify. These bits get shockingly little attention from a director known for her capacity to dazzle visually. She seems only to be focused on plot.
Taymor’s main impetus for the film is the casting of Helen Mirren as the all-powerful magician, Prospero, or Prospera as portrayed by the Dame. There is no particularly provocative payoff to changing the gender of this domineering patriarch. Nothing much is pushed, twisted or elucidated in the text, but plenty is lost: the idea of Miranda growing up without female role models, with notions that men can only be Prospero’s (conquering, cloistering, tyrant/protectors) or Calibans (feral would-be rapists) and the idea of European logoscentricity defeating/enslaving the chaotic natural world once ruled by the Sycorax, the (mystical female) witch.
The point of the casting choice seems to be simply: Helen Mirren is remarkable at acting Shakespeare, she’s the right age to play this part, and it would be cool to see her interpretation. Fair enough on all counts. She is wonderful in creating a Prospera who is supremely confident in her ability to inflict her will through magic but conflicted about just when and how to do so.
Mirren is surrounded by a universally wonderful cast. As Prospera’s daughter Miranda, Felicity Jones exhibits a perfect blend of subtle frustration with her overbearing mother, a gentle sensitivity to the plights of all those around her and, the character’s defining trait: pure wonder, without falling into the trap of cloying naïveté. As her suitor, Ferdinand, Reeve Carney plays a twerpish but endearing, slightly awkward, sheltered teen, torn between his nice-guy nature and the example of the entitled noble, set by his courtier elders.
The most delightful surprises from the cast are the inspired performances by Chris Cooper and Alan Cumming, who resurrect the story’s most pure villains, Antonio and Sebastian, from sneering caricatures, to a genuine Cassius and the genuinely amusing, hapless jester upon whom he preys. They fix their plots upon a wonderful King Alonso in David Straithairn, at once regal in his bearing and petulant in his self-absorption, and are well foiled by Tom Conti’s oppressively good-natured old idealist, Gonzalo.
Equally inspired is the selection of Russell Brand to play Trinculo, the play’s one character who is actually a fool by trade. Brand plays the role as a crazed cockney marionette. He and Alfred Molina as Stephano the drunken butler, balance buffoonery with glimpses of genuine scariness in their willingness to become slave masters to Caliban and would-be-usurpers of Prospera, mirroring the postures of Sebastian toward Alonso, Alonso toward Prospera and arguably, Prospera herself toward Caliban. Funny as Brand and Molina are though, there is oddness in the pacing of their scenes. You’re waiting for them to go all the way out there into the slapstick you see them as capable of, and yet somehow they seem restrained by a gesture toward earnestness.
As all modern students of “The Tempest” know, it’s Caliban who holds the key to the play’s morality. The more sympathetic he is the less so is his master, and in the modern world, the more identifiable he is with the victims of imperialist colonialism, the more sympathetic he becomes. Beninean actor, Djimon Hounso goes the sympathy route, but his performance is far from uncomplicated. Certainly, he enacts the Western idea of the exotic other, savage, in touch with nature but awed and baffled by technology (here, magic), not quite trust-worthy but overly put-upon. Mirren’s Prospera wants to see him as a pure and dangerous villain and yet is clearly unsettled by the tyranny he provokes in her.
Taymor writes further complications on her Caliban’s skin. It is striped with stings and with whip lashes, the unambiguously evil marks of the slave master. It is African black with large patches of pale, almost albino white. These patches remind one of lentigo, raising the idea that Caliban’s European whiteness as a kind of disease or condition. Upon closer inspection though it’s not just his skin, you can see that the white side of Caliban’s face surrounds a blue eye in contrast to the brown one on the other side, echoing Prospera’s description of his mother as a “blue-eyed hag.”
Ben Whisaw, as Caliban’s counterpart, Ariel, is the film’s one casualty to special effects. He is played as not merely androgynous, with strategically crossed legs, a blurred midsection, male facial features and the occasional appearance of slight breasts, but as a cipher, flickering translucently or appearing in pool of water, distinctly inhuman and almost neutral in expression and desire. Some of the Ariel effects are quite cool. He’s great divided into tiny particles or taking the form of a vengeful harpy. At other times though, he comes off as a bit camp, a bit Doctor Who, flying halteringly through the air with his shimmering blue bottom.
Plotwise, the greatest challenge of the “The Tempest” is it’s apparent lack of conflict. Prospero (or Prospera) always has the situation firmly in hand. Nothing ever really threatens this peerless protagonist so there can be little tension. In this production, Taymor and Mirren make it clear that the conflict is internal. After years of nursing resentment and loss, Prospera has her charges and her enemies right where she wants them. The question is, what should she do with them?
I found this to be a revelation, and it helped me answer one of the questions I inevitably ask myself upon the immerging of a new Shakespeare movie: Am I ok with this film being shown in high school and even college English classrooms, as it inevitable will be? My answer here is “yes.” You get the story, you get the language, you get the characters, the conflicts, you even get the jokes.
The secondly question I ask myself is: Does this feel like definitive film version of this play for this generation?” My answer here is “no.” I want an equally accessible “Tempest” with more filmic choices, and frankly, as wonderful as Mirren’s performance is, with a male Prospero. In fact, having seen and for the most part enjoyed this film, I feel twice as eager for the next version to emerge.