When reviewing an adaptation from the library of legendary playwright William Shakespeare, at least part of the work is pretty much done for you already, in that the story is basically unassailable. As long as the telling sticks to the original script, it’s narrative royalty. Instead you look for the nuance, the creative flourishes inserted by the adaptation’s maker, both how they fit into the strict framework of the Bard’s original tale and the subtle ways in which those flourishes enhance the telling for viewing audiences. Enter Julie Taymor’s take on The Tempest, which is at once a reverential re-creation and vast improvement on Shakespeare’s original work.
In the original tale, the magician Prospero, former Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda have spent more than a decade in exile after being overthrown by Prospero’s brother Antonio – helped by King Alonso of Naples – and sent off to live on a remote island. The story opens as the former Duke, aided by the captive spirit Ariel, summons up a tempest which forcibly brings a ship carrying Alonso, Antonio and several other key players to the shores of the island. Taymor keeps the core story intact while making a significant change to one character in particular: Prospero becomes the female witch Prospera, a role occupied here by Helen Mirren.
On paper, it’s a masterstroke. In flipping the gender of the central character, Taymor fundamentally alters the nature of the story’s most important relationships. The added poignancy given to the mother-daughter relationship between Prospera and Miranda feels so natural, it’s a wonder the play’s lead role wasn’t original written in this way. The same applies to the idea of a widowed Duchess taking over her fallen husband’s rule, only to be deposed and exiled for practicing witchcraft.
Other than the occasional “Lord” being changed to “mum,” the language from the original work is largely left intact. This leaves the burden of bringing across the themes and ideas in Taymor’s re-imagining squarely on the shoulders of both the filmmaker and her talented cast. Oscar-winner Mirren is the standout, naturally. The former Royal Shakespeare Company player is no stranger to the words of the Bard; she inhabits the role of Prospera with ease, and her mere presence is enough to raise the quality of the performances around her.
Ariel (Ben Whishaw) benefits the most, as most of his interactions are with Prospera. There’s a very natural tension created in the shift to a male-female relationship between the two. Ariel is an unwilling captive who nonetheless loves his master for saving him from an imprisoned existence. This love is realized in Taymor’s The Tempest as a playful and occasionally strained flirtatiousness; the spirit is a trickster and Prospera is his demanding mistress, giving all of their exchanges an edge which simply wouldn’t exist with a male lead.
Miranda (Felicity Jones) similarly benefits from her proximity to Prospera. The aforementioned mother-daughter relationship becomes central to the plot in Taymor’s telling, impacting all related character interactions. A big part of the story focuses on Prospera’s efforts to put the king’s son Alonso (Reeve Carney) in a position to fall in love with her daughter. While the scenes featuring Carney and Jones alone tend to fall flat, Mirren’s lingering presence between the two makes for some electric exchanges.
Credit too goes to the stranded King Alonso (David Strathairn), Antonio (Chris Cooper), Alonso’s brother Sebastian (Alan Cumming) and royal counselor/Prospera ally Gonzalo (Tom Conti). The foursome’s exchanges with their captor are limited to the story’s endgame, but their mad wanderings across the island offer plenty of opportunity for the talented actors to rise into their roles, and rise they do. Cheers especially for Cooper, playing the backstabbing brother who, by the time he finally meets his long-lost sister, has no dialogue left. Remarkably, Cooper shines brightest in The Tempest when he’s saying nothing at all.
Credit Taymor for seeing the chinks in the armor of Shakespeare’s canonical work and plugging those holes with some fresh, new ideas. The technical craft on display isn’t always in peak form, but the underlying intent is near-perfect. Taymor sees through to the heart of the original story while giving it an exceptionally clever new spin. This is a less dramatic departure from the source than Titus (1999), a fantastical modernized telling the Bard’s Titus Andronicus and the director’s feature debut, but the changes here are far more compelling.
All praise aside, The Tempest is an imperfect work. Russell Brand and Alfred Molina take the comic relief roles of Trinculo the jester and Stephano the drunken butler, respectively, and they feel out of place. Their scheming with Prospera’s enslaved servant Caliban (Djimon Hounsou) to take control of the island produces some humorous moments, but something just feels… off. If the story suffers at all for the central roles switched gender, it’s here; Brand, Molina and Hounsou read their lines just fine, but their characters’ connection to Prospera is so tenuous that this sub-plot is simply out of place.
The Miranda-Ferdinand relationship also feels off the mark. Jones and Carney don’t deliver bad performances, but the chemistry between them is hardly electric. Some of the blame belongs to the original work here: development of their relationship within the story is almost superficial. Their individual thoughts and feelings are not nearly as central to the story as Prospera’s larger purpose for them is. Jones and Carney don’t have much to work with in the first place, and the lack of sizzle between them only makes things more problematic.
Most distracting is the film’s low-budget presentation. It’s clear that plenty of money went into securing a serious cast of talented actors and giving them a remote Hawaii location to serve as their stage. The visual effects, on the other hand, range from sub-par to downright laughable. There’s a certain TV movie quality to the CG elements; you can clearly see what Taymor was going for, but a little added cash flow would have gone a long way towards making The Tempest more visually appealing than it ends up being.
For fans of Shakespeare’s work, The Tempest is a must-see proposition, as Taymor’s unique take on the story supersedes any shortcomings. As for wider audiences, potential ticket-buyers should remember that this is a work of William Shakespeare. Thees and Thous are thrown about with great frequency and even the most attentive listener will sometimes struggle to keep up with the Early Modern English dialogue. Strong performances and Taymor’s craft transcend these barriers quite well, but take care not to let the presence of talents like Brand, Cooper or Molina fool you into thinking this is popcorn entertainment.
Director Julie Taymor’s The Tempest arrives in theaters on December 10, 2010.
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