The Watchers

The Watchers

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Tempest (2010)

The Tempest is one of my favourite pieces of literature and my favourite of Shakespeare's plays. So when I heard that there was to be a film adaptation of the play directed by Julie Taymor (Titus, Frida, Across The Universe), I was intrigued. Not least because Taymor would be changing the gender of the main protagonist- from the sorceror Prospero to the sorceress Prospera.

Apart from the switch in gender, the film follows the plot of Shakespeare's original: on the way back from the marriage of his daughter, Alonso (the King of Naples) and his entourage are caught in the titular tempest and are shipwrecked on a distant island. But this  was no act of nature; Prospera  has raised the storm deliberately. She and her daughter Miranda were stranded on the island when her brother Antonio (supported by Alonso) usurped her from the dukedom of Milan. For twelve years, Prospera has been exiled on the island and now has her chance for revenge... The play is such a wonderfully powerful piece, touching on themes of love and loss, revenge and sacrifice, redemption and restoration. With such a strong  base, you would think the success of the project would be virtually assured. Well, not quite. There are a few misgivings that I have regarding the film which stop it being, for me, truly great. 

Just in case you think one of those misgivings in the switch in gender, let me be clear: I don't have any problem with changing Prospero's gender, especially when you have as accomplished an actress as Helen Mirren in the role. Her Prospera is a volcano ready to erupt, full of simmering passion and righteous anger for her treatment (Taymor wisely explains in pretty decent pseudo-Shakespearean writing that Prospera became Duke of Milan once her husband died, was accused of witchcraft by Antonio and then banished). Prospera's journey throughout is powerful stuff and Mirren is just excellent. Her grasp of the Shakespearean language frankly puts some other performers to shame, especially with the two famous speeches ('Our revels now are ended' and 'Ye elves of hills').

Other performances are fairly strong; David Strathairn, Chris Cooper and Tom Conti are all eminently watchable (especially Conti as the garrulous old counsellor Gonzalo), whilst Alfred Molina is good as the drunken butler Stephano. Sadly, Russell Brand grates on me every time he's on screen as the court jester Trinculo and Reeve Carney, who plays Ferdinand, has rockstar looks but is utterly bland (not sure whether that's the role or the acting though). They also shamelessly rip a song from Twelfth Night- 'O Mistress Mine'- so that Carney (a rockstar) can get to sing.

Taymor's visual style is impressive, utilising the harsh backdrops of Hawaii and Lanai to good effect and sequences showing the magical apparatus in Prospera's cell (and the masque for the marriage) are excellent. However, there were a few moments which baffled me, mostly around the presentation of Ariel, the airy spirit who serves Prospera. Sadly, Ben Whishaw's decent performance was slightly spoiled by the fact that, to me, he looked like a ghost from a Japanese horror movie - bone-white skin, black hair, staring eyes- which undercut him slightly. However, there is a rather poignant moment towards the end when Ariel and Prospera share a scene (and it appears to be the only time Mirren and Whishaw were in the same room together). 

As a piece of film-making, it's assured if a little shaky in places. As an adaptation of Shakespeare, its success (or otherwise) will depend on how much importance you give to the re-gendering of Prospero. Like I said previously, it wasn't a huge issue for me and raised some interesting questions: is a mother's love different from that of a father's, for instance. As a curio, this is well worth seeing but by no means would I consider it the seminal version of the play.

Rating: 3 out of 5


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