My Thoughts on Julie Taymor’s The Tempest

I got a late Christmas gift.  After missing out on seeing Julie Taymor’s The Tempest due to an extremely limited theatrical release, a dear friend of mine gifted the DVD for me for Christmas.  The anticipation of seeing this film has been building for well over a year now.  I enjoy film adaptations of Shakespeare because there are so many possibilities for the text to change and come alive on the screen.  And now with the latest technology breakthroughs of visual effects, the possibilities are endless.  When I first got wind of the Taymor’s film adaptation, I was excited.  When I found out that Prospero, typically a strong male role, would be changed to Proserpa, a female role, I was thrilled.  And then, when I got confirmation that Helen Mirren would be playing Prospera, I was ecstatic.  I had been in a performance of The Tempest where Prospero was played by a woman and therefore, always open to the idea.  I realize that there are many qualms regarding this, but what I advise is that one should remain open to the change.  Love it or hate it, but always give it a chance.  You may be surprised at what you may end up liking it and perhaps even fascinated at the newfound ideas and messages it may convey.

Shakespeare is a topic that I care about intensely.  I don’t watch adaptations just once.  My private process, as nerdy and presumptuous as it may come across, includes watching the film once with no play in hand and a very basic understanding of the idea and concept behind the film.  Then, I’ll take note of my initial reactions and questions, and with that in mind, I will look up any articles or documentaries discussing the process in further details (how, what, why, when).  Then, I will consult the original script if there’s any dramatic changes that stand out.  Then I will watch the film again with the play in hand, and making more detailed notes.  Hey, I figure if I ever do an adaptation of Shakespeare and I need to cut something, it’s not a bad idea to see what others have done.  Then I will watch the film with commentary, take notes again.  And finally, I will watch the film after all the extra little details and knowledge in hand and just enjoy the film and reap the benefits of all that extra research I’ve done.  I know.  I’m a nerd.  And believe it or not, what I do just skims the surface.  I could go into the background of certain acting styles and processes, design elements, etc.  By the way, this blog will be filled with many spoilers.  If you read something and I…spoiled…it for you, read at your own risk.

I completed my first viewing with mostly positive reactions.  The set of the film was a beautiful combination of nature and man-made imagery.  Miranda ran through about four different types of ground (rock, grass, sand, dirt).  It was stunning.  Now, the first thing that stood out to me was the editing of the text.  Of course, with Mirren playing Prospera, the changes are necessary, (ie. Lord to Mum, he to she).  But “Master” stays just that….Master.  Mistress wouldn’t be an appropriate change anyway, even though the syllable would keep the line consistent and the gender change would imply that the line has to change.  Taymor took an extra step and embellished the back story to be more appropriate and I applaud her for making the back story better fit the context of her adaptation.  Prospera was married to the Duke of Milan and she studied the sciences and the art of magic.  When her husband died, he left his dukedom to his wife, and Antonio accused her of witchcraft.  Hence to Prospera beign disposed of.  Gonzalo’s aide remains consistent.  This change to the back story adds another layer to The Tempest.  Not to mention that this presents a threat to her gender and not just her as a human being.  Throughout the film, Mirren is in pants, and it isn’t until she faces Antonio, Sebastian, Alonso, and Gonzalo, is she back in a dress and remains in that dress.  Also another notable change was the cut of Iris, Ceres and Juno.  That is alright though.  It was never one of my favorite scenes.  Not to mention the rearranging of dialogue had me raise an eyebrow a tad.  Finally, the cut of Prospera’s final speech almost had me in outrage and the feeling of being robbed.  However, I needed to calm down because in this film adaptation, I can understand why Taymor didn’t have Mirren deliver the speech.  It wouldn’t have fit, in my humble opinion.  As I watch the books float in the water during the final credits, I began to notice that the singer was singing the final speech.  Taymor found a way to sneak it in.  Interesting.  This is not the only time a speech was turned into a song.  Ferdinand’s speech was turned into a song, appropriately called, “O Mistress Mine”.

There were several actors who stood out to me.  Helen Mirren was fantastic as she always is.  I wish I could say more, but I enjoyed her Prospera and the underlying rage she kept inside and the softening of her character in the end.  It was brilliant.  The next actor that stood out to me was Ariel, played by Ben Wishaw.  It was a brand new and thoughtful perspective of Ariel that I had never seen before.  Ariel is often played playful with a side of anguish for his (or her) freedom.  Wishaw took on a tormented Ariel, with stunning visual effects.  Taymor was inspired by Brian Oglesbee, who is a photographer who worked on a water series and she brought him in to help with the film.  The dialogue between Ariel and Prospera through the water is visually fantastic.  There was a beautiful moment between Prospera and Ariel where Taymore let Ariel become physically manifested in act V, scene I.

And finally, Djimon Hounsou.  Where do I even begin?  His performance of Caliban moved me to tears.  I’ve never sympathized much for Caliban and I’ve never really enjoyed certain performances where Caliban’s humanity was taken away and replace by a stereotypical monster.  The Caliban in my mind was very much human, with human emotions.  Hounsou brought my dream Caliban to life.  If nothing else gets you to see this film, watch it for Hounsou.  I suppose I should address Russell Brand’s performance as Trinculo.  He was great, and the role suits him.  Alan Cumming was…well…Alan Cumming.  I admire Cumming’s work and I always enjoy him on screen.

Overall, I recommend this film to pretty much anyone.  The delivery of the dialogue is especially well done and easy to understand (in my opinion though).  I believe open-minded Shakespeare buffs will enjoy this film, while the purist Shakespeare buffs won’t enjoy it quite as much, I hope I’m wrong.  It’s an interesting adaption well-worth watching and enjoying.  The Tempest was Shakespeare’s final masterpiece and in a way, this play sums up all of his works and bids farewell to his audience with Prospero’s final speech.  Elements of Taymor’s previous 1986 stage production (which used some fantastic puppetry) lived on in this film and she has wonderful ideas.   I believe this film was not only well done, but it did this play justice.


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