The Tempest

The Tempest


Reviewed by: David Graham

Shakespeare's final and most fantastical play is brought to the screen by Titus director Julie Taymor in an adaptation that's straighter than it first appears. Helen Mirren stars as Prospera, a powerful magician exiled from her rightful place in Milan, who has raised her daughter Miranda on the isle they washed up on 12 years previously. Having the mischievous but loyal spirit Ariel at her disposal and the treacherous native creature Caliban to contend with, Prospera seizes the chance to cast her usurpers on her shore, orchestrating situations that reveal their various personalities and motivations.

Neither an outright comedy or tragedy but tainted with both, The Tempest has always been one of Shakespeare's most open-to-interpretation plays. Changing the main character's sex from a man to a woman is the most obvious and radical idea Taymor brings to the table, and it succeeds in deepening several of the piece's key relationships. Prospera's sheltering of Miranda, her bond with and hold over Ariel as well as initial maternal care for and subsequent oppression of Caliban are all given fresh dynamics thanks to this simple gender reversal. Helen Mirren initially seems a little adrift, awkward in her soliloquies and failing to convince as a staff-wielding mystic. Her usual steeliness is soon located though, and it serves the character well as she comes to grips with the changing tides of fortune; Mirren really communicates Prospera's mix of responsibility and regret, for her own situation and that of those around her.

Copy picture

Elsewhere, Taymor chooses to stick to the most obvious colourings of the characters, and as such some of their depth is lost. Felicity Jones makes a reasonable stab at Miranda, capturing her sense of wonder as she finally lays eyes on men (another interesting facet made possible by the central sex change), but her love interest looks too much like an emo pin-up with ridiculously straightened hair and tight black vest. A bizarre assortment of international thesps give respectful readings but fail to really bring their secondary characters to life, despite some interesting sexual tension between the conspiratorial Chris Cooper and Alan Cumming. Djimon Hounsou has a brave go at Caliban, adopting the fierce physicality of an African tribesman to perhaps express the play's concerns with colonialism and effectively portraying his wounded rage. But when his character arc strays into drunken silliness with Alfred Molina and the ever-irritating Russell Brand, the three actors fail to spark together, their scenes soon becoming a chore. The representation of Ariel is also a mixed bag, with the androgynous sprite's eagerness and indulgence fairly well embodied by Ben Whishaw, but his tics are undercut by the weak effects used to breathe life into him. Both of these otherworldly characters are let down by the handling of the final act, Taymor underplaying the bittersweet potential in the resolution of their fate.

This is really where Shakespeare's most metaliterary play is sadly let down: in its staging. The Hawaiian locations are easy on the eye but many of them soon become bland and don't evoke enough of a sense of wonder, while makeup and costumes are similarly underwhelming. Taymor's directorial style is infuriatingly inconsistent - some lengthy scenes of dialogue are shot so plainly as to become tedious, but sudden splashes of sub-par special effects and outrageous camera angles interrupt others as if from another movie. Prospera's speeches have often been seen as the playwright's own ruminations on his art and its end, and here are the moments that work best for being stripped down, Mirren finding a moving gravitas in her acceptance of fate and finality. However, if Taymor had taken more heed of her lead character's assertion that "We are such stuff as dreams are made on", she should have seen fit to furnish Shakespeare's ambiguous and evocative play with a more imaginative realisation.

Reviewed on: 10 Mar 2011
Share this with others on...
The Tempest packshot
Usurped by her brother, Prospera lives in exile with her daughter and faces a power struggle against the monstrous Caliban.
Amazon link

Director: Julie Taymor

Writer: Julie Taymor, based on the play by William Shakespeare.

Starring: Helen Mirren, Felicity Jones, Djimon Hounsou, Ben Whishaw, Tom Conti, Alan Cumming, Alfred Molina, Russell Brand

Year: 2010

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US


Search database: