Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The Tempest

2010. Dir: Julie Taymor. Starring: Helen Mirren, Felicity Jones, Reeve Carney, Russell Brand and Djimon Hounsou. ●●●●○

Whilst some of William Shakespeare's plays are constantly in the backs of public consciousness (Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet) others drift in and out of fashion; known more to aficionados and literature students than the average cinema goer. The Tempest definitely sits within the second set partly because Shakespeare's last play is problematic. Like A Midsummer Night's Dream it creates it's own logic; albeit significantly darker in it's intent influenced by the failing of Shakespeare's own literary skills and the King James's obsession with witchcraft. Perhaps the biggest issue, which resonates fully in a post-Iraq geopolitical world, is the ambivalent approach to imperialism and colonisation. Julie Taymor's production rather glosses over these issues, using the stunt casting of Helen Mirren in the traditional male lead of Propero (now called Prospera) as a tactic to confuse and mislead the audience's attention.

The titular storm occurs in the opening scenes of Act I, Prospera exercising her powers with the sprite Ariel (Ben Whishaw) under her control in order to wreck a passing vessel carrying the conspirators behind her exile and abandonment to the barren island where she resides. The rest of the story concerns three groups of the survivors as they respond to Prospera's machinations.

The first group contains her usurping brother Alonso (Chris Cooper) oily spreading discourse with Ferdinand (Alan Cumming) against the King of Naples (David Strathairn) with the loyal and verbose Gonzalez on hand (Tom Conti). Meanwhile Ferdinand (Reeve Carney), the heir to the throne of Naples, has been separated and introduced to Prospera's daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones) in order to test his virtue as a potential suitor.

Finally Stephano and Trinculo, comic relief as a drunkard, wasteful, working class (played by Alfred Molina and Russell Brand respectively) form a bond with the island's sole native - and Propera's slave - Caliban (Djimon Hounsou). Together they plot to overthrow the matriarchal state in which Caliban is imprisoned.

The gender change at the centre is a curious one, it allows for a much closer relationship between Prospera and Miranda, one that gives an additional urgency to the protective instincts Prospera feels towards her daughter - from the alleged lustful desire of Caliban to the shield from her work. That said it weakens Miranda who seems both whiny at times, yet also the standing up against her parent is less risky.

Of course Mirren delivers in the central role, but this isn't just a Propera show as other adaptation's have indicated. Chris Cooper is suitably menacing, virtually licking his lips as he whispers conspiracies. Tom Conti also hits the mark as the aging windbag. Brand and Molina might not be doing anything we haven't seen before but it is what they do best - Brand in particular seems to have wandered in from his stand up show. I was especially taken by Ben Whishaw's performance, at once enamoured by Prospera as well as desperately seeking his freedom from her control.

Design wise there are few film-makes more distinctive that Taymor. Sandy Powell's costume design is fantastic, from the zip encrusted noblemen ware to the seemingly pieces together costuming of the island residents. Whishaw's costumes also shone - when he appears as a crow it's beautiful frightening and captivating.

Eliott Goldenthal's music, including incidental songs, is also wonderfully integrated into the action and is among his best scores. Taymor's direction is at it's usual high standard - although she's clearly more interested in spectacle than character. Weirdly at times the film seems rushed - Prospera's about face on her knowledge seems almost whimsical.

I would heartily recommend this version of the play, but would have preferred Taymor to really try to confront the message of the story. When I leave with sympathy for Ariel's imprisonment but no opinion on Caliban's mistreatment I know there's been a trick missed.


Alex in Movieland said...

wow, you seem to be the only one to like it. I haven't seen it yet, the trailer looked a bit messy for me, but I'm still kind of anxious to see it. :D hope I'll catch a screener soon.

Sandy can do no wrong.

Runs Like A Gay said...

I like to swim against the tide, but seriously it's the outstanding design that gives this film it's high rating.

Sandy certainly can't - top form here.