110 Minutes // USA // Touchstone Pictures
directed and written by Julie Taymor
Tuesday, January 4th, 2011 – Living Room Theaters (Portland, OR)
starring: Helen Mirren, Dijmon Hounson & Felicity Jones
A few years ago I read William Shakespeare’s The Tempest – a short, yet exhausting final play by the bard. Although it possesses some interesting concepts about the way the world – and man’s mind – works, it felt a haphazard effort. Instead of bringing up new ideas, Shakespeare retraced old footsteps and in the process tried to make them bigger. Be it with characters who were more concept than man or with louder and more obnoxious pontification, what he tried to communicate didn’t emanate off the page, but rather read as an assortment of litanies. That is until Julie Taymor revived the weary play with her trademark visual excitement and a surprisingly elegiac understanding of the source material. And although it may sound elementary, this is when I realized that a play isn’t a novel; it is a book consisting of dialogue and character development that isn’t realized with any official tone or cadence until turned into a full-on production.
The film is by no means a masterclass in adaptation or supremely reverent thematically, but it is a strong showing by Taymor who has kept this adaptation both true and lucid amidst her visual tempest. Where Caliban once felt like a mere argument in favor of slavery abolition, with Dijmon Hounsou in the role, he now conveys a humanity that will earn your sympathies and your anger; where soliloquies and songs read as bothersome exposition or foreshadowing, they’re now sometimes poetic and generally inoffensive; where Shakespeare’s use of simile was sometimes cumbersome, with the brilliant and bawdy cast spurring his verbose wisdom through their personable tones it is refreshing and easily understood. Every issue I took from Shakespeare’s original text has now been enhanced to both a mostly palpable and generally palatable degree – and I thank Taymor and co. for this.
One of Taymor’s best showings of her intimacy with the material is also her most audacious – the swapping of the protagonist’s gender. In a rather perceptive switch, Julie Taymor gives the story more intense twist on the acrimony that careens through indignant humankind. In Prospera, it is also belligerent and calculated.
Prospera is a woman in her 60s with a daughter in her early stages of adulthood. They reside with a slave Prospera claims her own in Caliban and another kind of slave in the transcendent Ariel on an otherwise destitute, but gorgeous isle. Caliban became her slave when she killed the witch that previously occupied the island with her magical staff; Ariel in a similar style, but he remains loyal to Prospera’s desires out of his gratitude and not the same physical captivation of Caliban. By playing sexual reassignment surgeon, Taymor changes the main character from an embittered and calculated man to that of a woman who allows scorn to succumb her as it would any slighted man. It isn’t so much that having a woman in the role is a more fascinating take on this psychology, but it adds a refreshing and negatively imposed theme of feminism to the plot where there was none before. It’s refreshing, and, with the commanding Helen Mirren in the role, more vicious than preconceptions (be them sexist or androgynous) would have you anticipate.
Essentially, Prospera is a master manipulator of both the elements and of the mind of man. The film itself starts off somewhat shaky with its initial tempest – one which Prospera conjured herself. It brings waves crashing into a boat trekking through the sea, killing a few men on board, and landing those who are important to Prospera’s plan on the island which she controls. Ariel helps her in spooking and confusing the shipmates on the collapsing boat with his eerie blue presence – and continues to do so throughout the story. To have this immediate moment of crazed action – made further obtuse by Taymor’s trademark hit-and-miss visual effusiveness and extravagant sound design – open the film is an overwhelming moment; one that puts the audience off rather than enticing them as it’s all just too much too soon.
Soon we find out all the people who survived the capsize are royalty or related to it and with it, Prospera’s motivation for manipulating each of them to her own gain. The now King Alonso (David Strathairn) had her banished from Milan out of his own greed with her brother Antonio (Chris Cooper) helping usurp her throne. Also washed up on shore is Alonso’s son, Ferdinand – the most important piece in Prospera’s redemption as she uses Miranda, her daughter in an attempt to win over and marry Ferdinand. The enticing perversion here is that she does so unknown to Miranda who she is manipulating as well.
Beneath the main plot lay many other interesting concepts that are, for the most part, beneficial to the story. In particular, the covetous nature of man is showcased on quite a few occasions with the most intense exhibit coming with Gonzalo and Sebastian’s assassination plot which sought to kill Alonso, Antonio and their Catholic guide, Boatswain. It’s frightening to see these otherwise sarcastic and enjoyable (and to some, most relatable) characters be so consumed by desire that they’d kill their close friends for more authority back home.
In turn, there are one or two other quips or takes on man’s psychology that view as spurious and this is in the remiss attempt at recreating the success of the charming maladroits Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with Stephano (Alfred Molina) and Trinculo (Russell Brand). The drunken duo are, in equal parts, presented to the audiences as liquored-up men who bumble into insightful territory (Stephano’s comparing the bottle to the Bible is all kinds of fun) and flat-out idiots; with the latter mitigating the effect of the former’s worth. Unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (from Hamlet, if you’re not familiar) this duo’s ineptitude borders that of retardation and becomes rather cumbersome to behold. Making this further aggravating is the knowledge that there are far more fascinating and worthwhile stories taking place on the same island at that exact time that could be given more exposure. I, for one, would’ve rather seen the scurrilous greed flower within both Gonzalo and Sebastian rather than frequently acknowledge that they possessed it in later scenes. But the drunken duo are essentially used as a platform from which Caliban is able to pontificate the agony of slavery, so they do have their purpose and minimal worth in function to all the story wants to encompass. Perhaps if Shakespeare weren’t in such a rush for the exit he could’ve made the play longer and all the more satisfying.
What the film does best is in its misleading its audience — or to put it another way, in its manipulation which works in great irony with what the feature represents. With Mirren’s fierce embodiment of Prospera heading the story, you’ll feel secure in having inferred the protagonist’s emotional status as irrevocably venomous; her ferality leading you into believing what she’s projecting as raw emotion is her only one. This turns out to be her wisest performance – and both the film’s greatest asset and a representative of its great worth – because when the climax finally arrives, and an anemic Prospera excelerates to the realization that her life no longer has meaning in having her plan fall into complete realization, there is an upsetting solemnity that pulls the audience from the craziness of the story to her emotional destitution – as if she now feels as vacant as the soon-to-be unpopulated island. It is a wonderfully human close to a tale of fantasy and organized adventure; a visceral and upsetting moment, yet not one that indemnifies or dispels the cruelty of Prospera. It’s Shakespeare’s final blow and his most resonating one at that.