Movie #40: The Tempest

I’ve been fascinated by William Shakespeare’s The Tempest ever since I first learned that this “olde tyme” playwright (that our teacher was making us read) had written a tale featuring spirits, spells and sorcery rather than his usual cast of English kings and queens. When director Julie Taymor’s version came to the screen featuring actress Helen Mirren playing the lead as “Prospera” instead of the typical male role of Prospero, it seemed like it was going to be even more interesting. Taymor is known for her artistic style, having turned The Lion King into a musical where the cute Disney animals were replaced with athletic dancers wearing animal headdresses. She also adapted Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus as the movie Titus back in 1999 starring Anthony Hopkins (it was alright, but a bit too artsy for my taste) so this is not her first foray into that area either. In case you’re not familiar with the story, Prospera is a powerful sorceress who lives on a small island with her daughter Miranda, the fairy Ariel, and her primitive slave Caliban (played by Djimon Hounsou). She conjures a tempest (hence the title) to wreck a passing ship that maroons several important passengers on the island: King Alonso (played by David Strathairn), his son Ferdinand, his brother Sebastian (played by Alan Cumming), advisor Gonzalo, and Antonio the Duke of Milan (played by Chris Cooper). The connection is that Antonio is Prospera’s brother who stole the dukedom from her and had her exiled (with her young daughter) for being a witch. By bringing them to the island, Prospera intends to teach everyone a lesson (not kill them) for what they did to her. To that end, she separates Alonso from his son (both think the other dead), and torments the others with horrific visions and nasty tricks. In this version of The Tempest, we get a lot more visual effects than could ever be accomplished on stage. That really expands the nature of Ariel, Prospera’s servant and a sprite. The magic is more magical and comes closer to feeling like a Lord of the Rings style fantasy rather than a stagey theatrical adaptation. The switching of genders for Mirren to play Prospera feels pretty reasonable, actually. Mirren does a great job with the dialogue, and her femininity adds a bit of tenderness to her character (especially when she’s expressing regret). She seems to care more for Ariel, and even Caliban, than a male Prospero would; and the idea of her enthusiasm for fixing up her daughter with the prince seems completely natural (though the way she makes him work to prove his worth seems a bit fatherly). Though a movie’s wide scope makes the shipwreck, the island, the storms seem a bit more realistic, there is still a manipulated sense of time and space that keeps this movie feeling like a play. Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love literally immediately (Take that, rom-coms!), and all these strangers seem able to navigate the island with ease (Take that, Oceanic flight 815 castaways!). The Shakespearean dialogue is maintained throughout (though I don’t know the original well enough to notice what has been clipped or massaged), but it’s not hard to follow (I admit I did turn on the subtitles, but I stopped paying attention to them when I realized that they were distracting me). Only Hounsou seemed to be struggling a bit with the language, but it didn’t bother me given the nature of Caliban’s character. I was quite transported by this movie, and really enjoyed the fantastical elements. Taymor did a good job of making the 400-year-old play accessible while maintaining its elegance and artistry (4 out of 5).

40 down, only 10 to go!

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