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Review: The Tempest

The Tempest
12.07.2010
7 10

PLOT: In this film adaptation of Shakespeare's famous play, the role of the usually male magician Prospero is played by Helen Mirren. She's former royalty who's brother plotted to have her banished, along with her young daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones). Thirteen years later, Prospera and Miranda live on an island with Caliban (Djimon Hounsou), a native of the island and their slave once he tried to rape Miranda. Prospera with magic and the help of her spirit helper Ariel (Ben Whishaw), wrecks a ship carrying the architects of her disastrous fall.

REVIEW: I've been anticipating director Julie Taymor's adaptation of THE TEMPEST since the day it was announced. I started in theater and this is one of my favorite Shakespearian plays. The idea of changing Prosepro to Prospera, casting Helen Mirren and Russell Brand, Taymor's stunning visuals...how could it go wrong?

And I won't say it did go wrong. There were a ton of wonderful things about the film. Mirren was her usual slice of awesome. Brand is, well, Brand and for me, that is better than a heavily frosted cupcake. The costumes were stunning, the landscape was beautiful, the words, glorious. Even the two young stars (Jones and Reeve Carney) managed the characters and the dialogue with aplomb.

In fact, I'd love to talk about what went well first, because in the end, I really did enjoy it. Changing the role of Prospero to a female absolutely works. There is really no change to the story as it's written. I've seen a zillion experimental versions of Shakespeare, some in modern times, some in goofy costumes, most just done for the sake of doing it. A female Prospero actually makes sense. There is no reason it can't be done that way. But...it does change some of the flavors and feelings in the play. Mirren has all the power, presence and gravitas of any man I've ever seen play the role, and more. She commands the screen the way Prospera commands the island. But there is something about being a mother to Miranda rather than a father that softens the role a bit. She seems less of a jailer to Miranda than her father did in the original. It works, but it is a change.

There is something more benevolent in her arrangement of her daughter's love interest than if it had been done by her father. This play has been endlessly scrutinized by feminists and other groups, so please forgive me for doing the same. There is just, in my opinion, an archetype of the controlling father that is in our subconscious after lifetimes of stories, plays and real life examples that makes a modern person immediately jump to the conclusion that a father setting up his daughter is somewhat creepy and controlling. When a mother does it (again, I'm speaking in archetypes here), it seems somehow softer.

Another issue is that Miranda is fifteen. Helen Mirren is a gorgeous woman. She hardly looks her age and I would give my left arm to look that good when I'm ten years younger than she is. But what that means is that she physically couldn't play the character any older. And at the end of the film, (I'm assuming that since THE TEMPEST has been around for centuries, I'm not required to print a spoiler alert, but...spoiler alert) when she lets the magic fall away and talks about the grave, she never seems to really crumple or let go. She's just too vibrant. Again, Shakespeare is open to endless discussion and interpretation, so take that with a grain of salt. I just didn't feel like much changed for her at the end.

Visually, the film is stunning. And really, what else would you expect from Julie Taymor? Some scenes were a sixties drug trip. Others seemed to be based on the paintings of William Waterhouse. (One in particular, actually. Watch the scene with Prospera on the beach making a magic circle, then look up 'The Magic Circle' by Waterhouse.) I'm not sure if that was on purpose, but it was a lovely effect. My only issue is that it felt really uneven. It's obvious enough in Shakespeare's dialogue that the scenes with Trinculo (Brand) and his band are comic relief, the scenes with Miranda and Ferdinand are love-soaked, the ones with the king are fraught with tension and Prospera's with power. The visual swings, though lovely to look at, almost seemed a little heavy handed at times. An almost black and white palate for the shipwrecked men, wild colors for the clowns and a lovely forest for the lovers. As though we were being told what was happening in case we couldn't quite get the dialogue. Which brings me to Djimon Hounsou. I love his work. I always have. But his accent combined with Shakespearian tongue twisters was a bit difficult to understand, even for someone who knows the dialogue almost by heart. He even seemed a bit uncomfortable with the role in the beginning scenes, but he warmed up later in the film.

The role of Ariel (Whishaw) is always a bit difficult. How far do you go with the fairy/spirit thing? Especially in film where the effects house can do whatever you like. Taymor went full throttle here. For the most part it was effective, but there were moments where it seemed like a bit much. Again, not sure if this was actually Taymor's intention or if I'm just tacking my interpretation on it, but the character of Ariel has always been sort of unisex. Looking at the role historically, it was originally played by a man like all roles in Shakespeare's time. Then it switched to a female. Early last century, the tide swung back and now it's usually cast male. Taymor changes Whishaw back and forth, having him use a feminine singing voice and alternating between having breasts on the character and a male chest. It's an interesting concept that would have totally worked if it had been used more sparingly. The camera spent an excruciatingly long time making sure we noticed those breasts. After a while, I wanted to yell, 'I get it. Unisex. Move on.'

It's almost difficult for me to critique Brand's performance because he was the likable rogue he always is. In fact, the casting was brilliant here. It's characters like Trinculo that make Shakespeare accessible. There is no missing their meaning. He played off the always excellent Alfred Molina beautifully. The band of shipwrecked royalty, David Strathairn, Tom Conti, Alan Cumming and Chris Cooper were well cast and effective, though watching them bumble around in their madness at the end was a bit more suited to the stage than the screen.

Overall though, it's worth a look. It just isn't the tour de force I was hoping for.

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Source: JoBlo.com

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