Such Dreamy Stuff
Theatrical conjurer Julie Taymor puts her wand to a Shakespeare classic
by Jared Peterson
Somewhere in the distant, puffy-shirt- and frilly-collar-wearing past, Prospera (Helen Mirren), a sorceress in exile on a remote island, conjures a raging storm that sinks a passing ship and strands its passengers, among them Alonso (David Strathairn) and Antonio (Chris Cooper), respectively the King and Duke of Milan. Prospera, it turns out, has a bone to pick. She was once the Duchess of Milan, but was betrayed by Antonio, her brother-in-law, stripped of her title and set her adrift on the open ocean with nothing but her books of magic and her young daughter.
Now, many years later, she seizes her chance for revenge, commanding her servant, an androgynous sprite called Ariel, to toy with the men, casting spells to embarrass and endanger them. Prospera’s daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones), now on the verge of womanhood, has little memory of the world beyond the island. Enter Ferdinand (Reeve Carney), handsome prince and son of Alonso. Miranda and Ferdinand meet and—shocker!—fall instantly in love. Prospera uses her magic to manipulate them as well, testing the prince’s worthiness and setting up the possibility of Miranda returning to society.
Julie Taymor, who adapted the text and directed, performs her biggest trick with some unique casting. Shakespeare wrote the character of the lonely wizard Prospero (“o” at the end) as a man. (It is thought that he played the role himself for a time.) Here, Prospero becomes Prospera, played by Helen Mirren. Shakespeare scholars and aficionados will debate the differences; those unfamiliar with the play have less work to do, and can experience the film and the character on their own terms. Regardless, the swapping of letters in a name is mere sleight of hand; the real magic is Mirren’s. She is strong, assured and remarkably unburdened by the weight of 400 years of testosterone; in her hands, Prospera’s womanhood seems not just natural but essential. She is a roiling storm cloud of agendas and drives. She is a woman of great power, scorned and cast aside by scheming, jealous men. She is fiercely protective of her daughter but aware of the deprivations their exile has caused. She is manipulative, sometimes tyrannical, and, for all these reasons and more, strangely familiar.
As Caliban, Prospera’s captive servant, Djimon Hounsou too, gives a remarkable, very physical performance. The West African actor came to prominence for his role as a fugitive slave in Amistad. Since, by any account, Caliban is a slave, this casting choice is more food for thought. Whether it’s meant to emphasize the immorality of Caliban’s servitude, or is just a bit of post-racial color-blindness, I can’t say. But it was a little discomfiting watching him as Shakespeare’s base, exotic savage and sometime fool.
The cast is rounded out with other high-quality actors: Tom Conti, Alfred Molina, Alan Cumming among them. And while Helen Mirren could play a table lamp and still be fascinating to watch, I wish I could say they burned as brightly. Part of it could be the material. The Tempest is minor major Shakespeare (it’s not etched on Western consciousness in the same way as Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, and perhaps for a reason), with one or two fascinating characters rounded out with an awful lot of boilerplate: magic; royal treachery; blind, young love. All of which makes it hard to rise out of the background.
As in other works, like Titus Andronicus (another Shakespeare adaptation), Frida, Across the Universe, and the Broadway adaptation of The Lion King, Taymor shows off her peerless visual style. There are some amazing sights on display here, though the computer-generated wizardry isn’t nearly as impressive as the real-world touches in costumes, make-up and the starkly beautiful natural settings. Regardless, in many ways—some bad, mostly good—this Tempest isn’t your great-great-grandfather’s Shakespeare.
The Tempest is rated PG-13. There are moments of peril, including a stormy shipwreck, and some scary images of crow beasts, swarms of bees and snarling, fiery dogs. The supernatural Ariel is au naturel through most of the film, his netherworld usually hidden by ethereal smoke and well-placed shrubbery—though we do catch a glimpse of his rear end and, eventually, a distant, fading shot of his Ken-doll-like physique. Teens and teens-at-heart will enjoy the occasional fart joke and some comically reliable public urination. Swearing is mostly Elizabethan—whoresons and cankers and knaves, oh my! (I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t mention that I might have heard a couple of f-words uttered under the breath.)