So, admittedly, I’m going through a bit of a Shakespeare phase. By that I mean that my current summer project is reading all of his plays that I haven’t yet read. Having completed twenty, I only have seventeen left, so I feel pretty good about that. Along with all the reading, though, I’ve found myself watching a number of Shakespeare movies, hence how this is the third installment in a series I started just this summer. Some of them have been great, like Much Ado About Nothing, some have been severely lacking, like Coriolanus, and some have been downright terrible, like…
The Tempest (2010)
Prospera (Helen Mirren) is a sorceress who has been exiled onto a remote island with her daughter, Miranda (Felicity Jones) and a native monster, Caliban (Djimon Hounsou), whom she has enslaved. One fine day, after twelve years of exile, a ship comes drifting by the isle. By some chance it happens to be carrying Prospera’s brother, Antonio (Chris Cooper), who deposed her as duke of Milan and banished her. Using her handy-dandy magic spirit Ariel (Ben Whinshaw), Prospera summons the titular tempest to bring the ship ashore. As Prospera and Ariel begin to toy with Antonio and his companions, Sebastian (Alan Cumming), Gonzalo (Tom Conti), and King Alonso (David Strathairn), Miranda falls in love with Alonso’s son Ferdinand (Reeve Carny), and Caliban falls in with two fools, Stephano (Alfred Molina) and Trinculo (Russell Brand), whose help he enlists in a plot to murder Prospera.
Yowza. How about that cast, am I right? Actually, the casting is nigh flawless. Almost everyone does a superb job embodying their characters. Even Russell Brand is surprisingly convincing as a Shakespearean clown. The two young lovers are mostly forgettable, but whatever, they don’t need to be that great. Really, I think (and this is just my reading of the play), that the three most important characters to its success are Prospero (obviously), Ariel, and Caliban, so I guess I’ll start by talking about each of them and why this movie is terrible.
We’ll do Caliban first, because he’s actually the most okay. Djimon Hounsou is as capable as ever in the role, and director Julie Taymor manages to create some potentially interesting subtext in casting an African actor in the role of the monstrous slave. A powerful white character came from a far away land and stole the black character’s native land by enslaving him. OOOOOHhhhhhh. I get it. I see what you did there, Julie Taymor. Nice. That’s clever. This idea of colonialism is not present in the play, but that’s not a big deal. Shakespeare is malleable. The annoying thing is that she sort of tossed it in for fun, but didn’t expand upon it at all. It’s a lucky thing Hounsou is a good actor and clearly understands Shakespeare’s Caliban and not just Taymor’s vague concept of him.
You’ll note that two paragraphs ago I said Prospero, and not Prospera like I did three paragraphs ago. A typo, perhaps? Those of you who took Spanish in high school will know that in most Romantic languages, the “o” is masculine and the “a” is feminine. Shakespeare’s protagonist is indeed male, and Helen Mirren is, notably, not. Now, as I was watching this film I realized that this change in sex is not actually an inherently bad idea. A thoughtful director could use that to develop the Prospero/Miranda relationship in a new and intriguing way. Not only that, but this alteration really impacts all of the relationships Prospero has, with his brother, with Caliban, with Ariel. A change like that comes with the license of adaptation, and could help analyze Shakespeare’s work in a new light. Once again, though, Taymor seemingly fails to understand the point of her own decisions. Rather than using that “a” to make something thought-provoking, she just sort of throws the idea at the screen and with all the calculated indignation of naïve teenage poet says, “Bam! Female protagonist. Deal with it, Society.”
That’s sort of what the whole movie does, though. People just throw things at the screen for an hour and forty minutes. They throw words, and makeup, and art direction, and misplaced jazzy music, and visual effects. Oh, the visual effects. Let’s talk about Ariel for a little while, shall we? Like a parent with a child who has just made a decision so amazingly and spectacularly bad you can’t even fathom how it happened at all, I just want to sit down Julie Taymor and with a fixed expression of absolute confusion and frustration, ask her, “What were you thinking?” Please watch the first minute and a half of this video, and I advise you no more than that.
So, that’s terrible, but a bad execution is a bad execution, and so be it. The truly unforgiveable thing Taymor does is in her utter failure to understand the play. Most scholars and historians agree that The Tempest is the last play Shakespeare wrote. One should definitely keep that thought while adapting it. He wrote it with retirement in mind, reflecting on a lengthy and prosperous career. The Tempest is a farewell. Taymor robs the play of all its heart and soul and turns it into an abrasive spectacle. The costume design and locations are great, really deserving of a better film, but they’re stuffed with air. The visual effects are terrible and also stuffed with air. Watching this film is as much an affront to the senses as eating a Guatemalan insanity pepper. It’s offensive on a cinematic level, but even more so as a Shakespeareane adaptation.