Julie Taymor’s Tempest isn’t showing anywhere in San Francisco at the moment. but I’ve been keen to see it since I heard about it. I’m a sucker for Shakespeare, The Tempest, and Helen Mirren. So off I went to the only theater I could find, the not-for-profit Rafael in San Rafael. For those who haven’t been keeping tabs on this particular film, it’s the Tempest with very few alterations… except that Prospero is played by Helen Mirren as Prospera, a sorceress instead of a sorceror.
So, what did I think?
The gender-change does wonderful things to the film. It felt so right that — and I found this weird — it’s the Shakespeare version that felt contrived.
But it also changes the story in unexpected ways. Instead of being a story essentially about revenge and forgiveness, it’s about a dying, powerful, mother making provisions for her sweet but rather dim daughter. Oh, sure, Prospera gets in her revenge, but it’s a very modified one. Why? Well, these are people who her daughter will be allied with after her time. She doesn’t have the luxury of chopping them into small pieces of begging near-corpses. It may be the goodness of her heart, but she’s proven capable of being pretty tough not just with Caliban, a reluctant slave, but Ariel, whom she loves. But they’re her network, the only people of power she still knows. And she has her darling dim child to take care of. (It reminded me a bit of Mama Mia, the movie. Same dynamic between a Mom who’s competent and a star, and a daughter who’s young, cute, and in love.)
Why do I feel Miranda’s not very bright? Well, she shows no signs of having any power herself. In the original, that was easily explained — she’s female, she doesn’t get to learn all this arcane stuff. But in this version? Her mother is in no position to leave her her ducal heritage; but she can give her a wizardly one. She’s got the books. She has the staff. It’s what she does, and what she could teach her daughter to do. Any smart kid would *want* to learn all that — but this one doesn’t. Instead, she bounds around the island doing, apparently, nothing much. (Unless the sandcastle in hand in the opening credits was some evidence of magical ability — but if so, the point wasn’t pursued any further.)
Miranda has no future here, and Prospera’s dying. So, working with the material at hand, Prospera grabs an opportunity and betroths Miranda to Ferdinand, the son of the King of Naples. The very King who conspired with her brother to exile her and 3-year-old Miranda, but she confronts him just enough to create a feeling of regret and obligation, not of revenge. She’ takes back her dukedom from her rascally brother, but not for herself — her every 3rd thought is of the grave, which sounds like she’s knows she has something that will kill her in a few months or years. What that does is makes Miranda into a princess again, a sole heir to Milan. It gives her clout with her new in-laws, cementing the alliance. This is pretty important because once they get back to the mainland, the King of Naples will be the bigger shot. Milan’s been paying him tribute, after all. I’m pretty sure dear brother has a very short life-span. Shorter than his sister’s. He may, regrettably, never make it back to Milan, poor chap.
Theoretically, Prospera could just have taken Miranda back to Milan with her. But the kid hasn’t been trained as a lady of the court. She hasn’t been trained as a magician. She’s pretty much been running wild on the island. The only way Prospera can secure her future is a good marriage, and there’s no time like the present to achieve it.
THE MOVIE REVIEW
As for the movie itself: Helen Mirren was pitch perfect as Prospera. She owned the role. I thought Djimon Hounsou did a great job with a difficult part; his Caliban was more than a nasty stupid monster. Everyone else was okay. Ariel looked rather too manly for the role; when Prospera calls him “my delicate Ariel” it’s a hard sell. So also the sleeping in cowslips.
The costumes were brilliant, all black leather and zips for the formal court costumes, and rustic cottons and linens for what they wear on the island. Caliban’s “costume” — make-up, actually — was also superb. The setting was beautifully done, too; and I think Prospera’s cave was marvelous with long floating staircases cantilevered from the wall. But the pine (in which Ariel is supposed to be trapped by Sycorax) was actually a banyan tree (ficus bengalensis). Which I wouldn’t have minded if she hadn’t clearly referred to a pine and then threatened to shut him into an oak.
The special effects… not so much. Ariel had this sort of Tinkerbell glow going on, which made him difficult to take seriously. He’s naked (or in a body suit, I don’t know) and in the first few scenes adopts these very contorted positions so we don’t get full frontal nudity. (I read somewhere they digitally removed anything that showed, so I don’t know the contortions were necessary. They reminded me uncomfortably of early girlie magazines in which models adopted strange poses to convey nudity without actually showing anything the censors would block.) It made me wonder if they auditioned for the ability to twist one’s body into pretzels.
The sky scene — where Prospera makes amazing images in the sky to entertain the two youngsters — just wasn’t amazing. It didn’t have much impact, a missed opportunity to do something mind-blowing.
All in all, though, Prospera more than carries the film. It’s worth seeing.