Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Tempest

The Tempest is generally accepted by scholars to have been the final play written by William Shakespeare. It concerns Prospero, the ousted Duke of Milan who uses magic to bring his enemies to his secluded island where he restores himself to power and secures his daughter Miranda's future by marrying her to the king's son. With his task complete, Prospero abandons the fantastic realm of the island, leaves behind the mythical creatures, and forsakes magic.

"Now my charms are all o'erthrown, and what strength I have's mine own, which is most faint," Prospero begins his final monologue directly to the audience. "... But release me from my bands with the help of your good hands ... As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free."

Looking back with the assumption that this was his final play, it's not hard to view this as Shakespeare's own farewell to his audience. As a writer of 36 or 37 plays (depending on what's counted), Shakespeare, like a sorcerer, could conjure up anything he wanted - kings, armies, witches - and like Prospero, he seemed to give that up and live out his remaining years in another realm. Within a few years, Shakespeare himself was dead, preceded by his son several years prior.

Director Julie Taymor 2010 adaptation of The Tempest understands the play is partially about impending mortality. Many of shots reduce the characters to tiny figures against the vast scope of nature, delicate little being caught among sharp cliffs, the oppressive sky, and the vast ocean. The magical visions and hallucinations conjured up are of giant, demonic images: black-winged creatures and fiery demon dogs that torment and pursue the play's sinners and schemers. The opening storm batters the men on the ship who are helpless against its fury. In a shot reminiscent of the dance of death at the end of The Seventh Seal, the monster Caliban (Djimon Hounsou) leads the butler Stefano (Alfred Molina) and the jester Trinculo (Russell Brand) off in what will be a failed coup against the mistress of the island, Prospera  (Helen Mirren).

It was a curious decision of Taymor (who also wrote the adaptation) to recast Prospero as a woman. To the best of my knowledge, it's the only major deviation from the source material. The move results in a strong female at the center of the story. Previously, the only female character is Prospero's obedient, sheltered daughter Miranda whom he uses to further position his return to power by marrying her to the king of Naples' son (characters in The Tempest frequently confront the possibility of losing their children, either to death or marriage to a far-away nobleman that they may as well be dead). Here, Prospera becomes a persecuted woman of power, both because of her magic and her dukedom, who also has to raise her daughter. Talk about balancing a career and being a single parent. Ultimately, she proves the craftiest, carefully strategizing and remaining three steps ahead of everyone else.      

Visually speaking, Taymor's interpretation of the play is astounding. The film is overloaded with staggering special effects, particularly with Ariel (Ben Whisaw), the island spirit who serves Prospera. Naked and completely pale, he appears in bodies of water and the sky, is mostly transparent  and half visible, divides himself into copies, and is central to a number of spells Prospera casts.

However, this bombastic, almost operatic visual style would probably be better suited to a fantasy epic like Lord of the Rings because here, it all but overwhelms Shakespeare's words. I was intrigued while watching it, but I never felt entranced or moved. The Bard's play is a contemplative look about mortality, the lessons learned from a life of plotting, deception, and betrayal, and how even the worst of us have hope for redemption and beauty. That really doesn't come across in Taymor's film as much as it should; a quiet, more subtle approach would have been more appropriate (Of course, Taymor's biggest sin is to transform the final soliloquy into a Celine Deon-esque song that plays over the end credits). As a result, the movie doesn't emotionally resonate as much as expected; it's all spectacle.

Performances are good all around, and Taymor makes good use of the island setting for some beautiful scenery, but it  felt like The Tempest should have been more.

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