The final play written by Shakespeare, The Tempest is widely regarded as one of his most outstanding works. With a mix of magic, manipulation, and misunderstanding, Julie Taymor has crafted a visually stimulating, forceful film that stays true to the original, while subtly playing with modern themes.
The most notable change in this adaptation comes with the casting of Helen Mirren as a female Prospero, “Prospera”. Somewhat surprisingly, this choice manages to add new depth to the character, while deviating only slightly from the original. It is in the recounting of Prospera’s past to Miranda that we see the most significant alteration from the original play. A hazy, visually subdued flashback is shown of Prospera’s betrayal at the hands of Sebastian, having been accused of the murder of her husband (the duke of Milan) through use of ‘the dark arts’. Here we’re informed of the allowance of Prospera by her husband to explore her alchemical studies, contrasted by the accusation of her being witch.
Casting in this film seems to be a deliberate choice, and the themes that result as a direct consequence color the story and consider implications that aren’t present in the original play.
With Djimon Hounsou as Caliban, lines such as “Which first I was mine own king” (Act I.II.342) imply concepts of colonialism not present in the original play. Prospera herself evokes the White Man’s Burden: “I pitied thee/ Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour/ One thing or other” (I.II.353-355).
In positioning both Prospero and Miranda as women, a strict separation is made between those at home and in control on the island, versus those who are at its mercy. This gives space for Miren to perform and work off of the maternal bond between her and Felicity Jones. Both actors are convincing in the relationship, conveying a dynamic of innocence and control in as compassionate a display of stockholm-syndrome as there can be.
The power difference in this relationship is exaggerated as Miren ‘places’ Miranda into an old rowboat as she recounts her past. Swaddled in her robe, Miranda gazes up in glassy-eyed innocence, evoking the image of a child in her crib. Miranda, revealing that she does remember having women tend to her in her dream-like memory of childhood, is pressed no further, as Prospero’s lines pursuing her memories are omitted (I.II.49-52). This is one of the many times in the film where Miranda’s thoughts and characterization are overlooked via erasure of her lines, often in favor of drawing attention to Prospera. Overall, Mirren’s performance and casting steer The Tempest away from comedy and playful orchestration into the powerfully exciting realm of retribution, maternity, and power.
Prospera’s agency is mainly exercised through Ariel, who is portrayed as a pale, thin, and translucent young man that prods the shipwrecked men around the island. We see quite a bit of Ariel throughout the film- unfortunately, that is. Nearly every scene that Ariel is involved in has him uncannily transposed onto some feature of nature. The effect creates a clash between the otherwise gorgeous cinematics, jarring the viewer into discomfort as we’re forced to adjust to a pale little man swooshing across the frame. In particular, Ariel’s description of the shipwreck, likely meant to be playful and mischievous, comes across as awkward and out of place. A heavy drum and guitar duet paired with strange CGI embarrases itself amidst the orchestral soundtrack present in the rest of the film.
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The omittance of extraneous characters like the boatswain, or the silent crewmen, helps to focus on the individual characters of Alonso, Gonzalo, Sebastian, and Antonio. The small cast overall lend the empty landscapes an appealing surrealist tone, one that would be impossible to communicate in the theatre. However, these scenes aren’t consistent enough to lend the film any concrete visual theme. Instead scenes are often framed in entirely different styles that could very well be from different films, requiring the viewer to repeatedly readjust themselves to the perspectives on screen.This being said, cinematography, coloring, and setting combine beautifully at various times throughout the film, doing their best to communicate a grandness consistent with Shakespearean theatre, if only momentarily.
Russel Brandts’ brand of acting seems to color Trinculo perfectly. Whether he’s adapting a monologue into a one-sided conversation with a cloud (Act II.II.18- 43) or playfully romping around in women’s clothing, Brandt truly makes Trinculo’s character his own.
Unlike the rest of the cast, Brandt was encouraged to wear his normal clothing while shooting.
Overall the performances in the film were truthful to lines they were drawn from. Miren’s delivery of Prospero’s lines in (V.I.33-57) sums up the development of her character. A grandoise declaration of her feats subsides into a remorseful, sad, yet accepting relinquishment of her magical abilities. This performance manages to faithfully trace the attitude of Prospera throughout the film, and is aided cinematographically by the circling of the camera with her at its centre, while the flames she lights, quite poetically, die out.
Putting aside the inconsistent visuals and literally any scene with Ariel, The Tempest manages to accomplish Shakespeare’s final play honorably. It displays a delivery of lines faithful to the original, with characters like Prospera, Caliban, and Trinculo adding new, modern dimensions to the film. Though its failures and inconsistencies are glaringly obvious, through its merits and strengths the film seems to beseech you:
As you from crimes would pardon’d be
Let your indulgence set me free.
– Screenshots: The Tempest (2010), watched on Netflix –