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Non-Review Review: The Tempest

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Julie Taymor’s Titus. It was a punk rock adaptation of perhaps Shakespeare’s trashiest play, and it was a fusion which just worked. The Tempest, on the other hand, is a very different beast. Far from being one of the Bard’s more easily forgotten plays, it has been one of his most highly regarded since its revival in the nineteenth century. It is, despite some outward cynicism, a far more optimistic and (dare I say it?) lighter piece than the orgy of death and destruction in Titus Andronicus. So Taymor’s skills aren’t quite as perfectly in step as they might be. That said, she’s still a remarkable director with a keen visual sense, and the movie manages to be engaging and entertaining, despite a few missteps.

It's a kinda magic...

The Tempest holds a somewhat controversial place in the grand Shakespearean canon. There’s a widely-held belief that it was his final work. Of course, this is contested, with other historians suggesting it is his last solo work and some arguing that it isn’t anything resembling a final work at all. However, the idea that this play might have been the last time that most important writer in history put pen to paper is a romantic one – it’s one that many people reading the play would like to believe.

The Tempest as originally written is about an ageing wizard making peace with the world. If you believe magic (at that time a taboo subject) is a stand-in for theatre, than the ageing Prospero is a stand-in for Shakespeare himself. Using what might be best described as “rational” magic and a water sprite which might as well stand in for Shakespeare’s creative imagination, Prospero conspires to bring several strands together. The first strand is a flirtation between his daughter and the Prince of Naples – a love which Prospero feels the need to throw a few hurdles to block, “lest too light winning, make the prize light.” So, basically, to create some drama to give the story a sense of scale.

Can Mirren Prosper(a)...

The second strand is that of a tragedy. A king who has lost his son, wandering with a wise old man, his brother and a treacherous Duke. This story is punctuated with betrayal and ambition, like so many of Shakespeare’s fine tragedies. However, what’s remarkable is that [spoiler alert, but you should know this] nobody dies. In the end, rather than indulging bloodlust or revenge, Prospero takes mercy on them. After all, as much as the writer may need to strike down his characters in order to satisfy the demands of plot, he will also grow to empathise with them. If the nymph Ariel can grow to feel for them, “shall not myself, one of their kind, that relish all as sharply, passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?” Doesn’t the writer need to feel it perhaps more intensely than the audience in order to write it?

The third strand is typical Shakespearean farce, with undertones of social commentary. We have Prospero’s slave (and that’s a word that pops up repeatedly throughout the work) accompanying two fools through the island, as they fundamentally misunderstand the very nature of their surroundings. They are not killed, but they are punished for their impudence, and – again – Prospero takes mercy on them, just once. It’s nice to think that this was the last thing that Shakespeare wrote, the story of a writer deciding to have mercy upon the characters in his little drama.

Clouds on the horizon...

Enough about the play. I’m not a Shakespearean scholar, and I probably do the author a disservice by even trying to discuss it. Let’s talk about Taymor’s adaptation of the play. The first and most striking aspect of the production is the decision to change the gender of Prospero (making her Prospera). Julie Taymor claims that this wasn’t a “gimmick”, it was merely because Helen Mirren was the best person for the part. Mirren is great, and more than good enough to forgive the decision to recast the role.

However, it would be foolish to pretend that changing the gender of the lead character doesn’t alter the underlying themes of the work. In a play which only had one female role (the role of Prospero’s daughter, Miranda) and which explored the notion that Miranda’s life was just as manipulated and controlled as the other inhabitants of the island Prospero had essentially colonised, the fact that only one female character appeared was important. Admittedly, recasting the banished Prospero as a woman does add an extra dimension to her exile from a world ruled by men. It’s a big change, but it’s not a cosmetic or shallow one – Taymor knows what she’s doing, and I respect her for that.

All the King's men...

Neil Gaiman once suggested that The Tempest was Shakespeare’s second great play about dreams (go on, guess what the other one was), but it’s also a play that is fleetingly aware of its status as a play. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” Prospero suggests, as if aware he’s but a figment of poor Will Shakespeare’s imagination. He’s even aware of the improbable nature of the adventure – the reunion with his brother an “accident most strange.” At one stage, he references the Globe, and it’s clear he’s not talking about the planet, but the famous theatre.

So the play lends itself to spectacle and self-conscious direction. Taymor is mostly up to the task. The opening sequence, playing out the first two scenes of the play simultaneously, is buzzing with raw energy. The camera is prone to move around, as if afraid to settle its attention on one object. In particular, the water nymph Ariel is portrayed with all manner of special effects. Some of these work well (presenting Ariel as giant black bird), while others do not (the vision of Ariel’s attack on the ship). There are some wonderful uses of special effects, but also a lot of awkwardly over-stated shots.

In particularly, the CGI often isn’t quite up to the task required of it. Consider, for example, rendering the nymph as a frog (or several), or showing us the hounds of hell chasing the fools around the island. In cases like this, the movie almost overplays its hand, knocking the viewer out of the drama unfolding on-screen. These moments tend to occur with little or no warning, and you’ll see sequences where the effects are working quite well… and all of a sudden there’ll be one shot which goes a little too far.

Dressed for action...

Another awkward part of the film is the casting of Russell Brand as Trinculo. I get what Taymor is doing here – Brand’s on-screen persona is a direct descendent of this sort of Shakespearean character, and the casting screams “look at how Shakespeare is still relevent.” In credit to Brand, he plays Trinculo pretty much the same way that he plays Aldous Snow. However, it doesn’t really fit particularly well. I’m not saying that you can’t have a more modern portrayal of a classic character (look at Harold Perrineau in Romeo + Juliet), but just that it doesn’t work in this case and feels more like stunt casting than the changing of Prospero’s gender.

The truth is that The Tempest is still relevent today. The plot thread following Caliban has become even more apt in the centuries since it was written. Reflecting how Caliban is convinced to worship the sailors, historical scholars accept that alcohol was a common tool of colonial oppression, leaving an impact which is still felt in those regions of the world to this very day. Caliban himself has been the subject of much re-evaluation and debate in recent years, with his claim “this island’s mine” having more weight with modern audiences, along with the fact that (despite the fact that Prospero may deem himself ‘civilised’) it was Caliban who taught the settlers how to survive in the wilderness.

A rocky relationship...

The cast is, with the exception of Brand, great. In particular, Alan Cumming continues to impress me with his capacity to handle Shakespeare. It just comes naturally to him. David Strathairn and Chris Cox do much better than I might have suspected. And Djimon Hounsou is great as Caliban. He has a wonderful physical style and presence, even if he suffers from being stuck on-screen with Brand. Ben Whishaw is also effective as Ariel.

So The Tempest isn’t quite as good as Titus was, but it’s still an interesting visual film. If you’re looking for a modern and experimental adaptation of a classic, though, it’s well worth a go. There are quite a few problems here, but there’s more than enough good stuff to make it worth your while.

I don’t normally score my reviews, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival does give an “audience award” and asks the audience to rate the film out of four. In the interest of full and frank disclosure, my score is: 3.

6 Responses

  1. I LOVED Titus. Gave me the willies but I loved it.

    • I think Titus is more suited to the punk aesthetic Taymor has going (seriously, everything here has zips on it for some reason), but it’s still got a lot of energy. It does veer into camp, but when it works – it works well.

  2. I love how Taymor is going for the least obvious Shakespeare plays, but sometimes I think she should just go cinematographer full-time.

    • I’d almost agree about the cinematography thing.

      Although I think The Tempest is a fairly obvious choice. It’s not one of the “big” four or Romeo & Juliet, but I’d argue it’s well known. Now Titus, on the other hand, was relatively obscure.

  3. I saw the trailer which was incredibly weird and pretentious for me. That was enough lol.

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