Like many on the planet, I adore Helen Mirren. I mean c’mon the lady kicks ass! I’ve loved her ever since I watched her in the film 2010 in which she played an astronaut captain. She was so strong and decisive. I get the sense from the roles she selects to her answers in interviews, that’s pretty much how she is in real life. So I was elated when I heard earlier this year that she would be starring in Julie Taymor’s adaptation of The Tempest.
For those unfamiliar with the Shakespeare play (and I had never read it or seen it until now), Prospera (in the play Prospero) is a sorceress and a duchess. When her husband is killed, she’s accused of using magic to murder him, an elaborate ruse plotted by her treacherous brother and aided by others in the kingdom. Usurping her power, Prospera and her 4-year-old daughter Miranda are tossed on to a raft and set adrift at sea to die. Luckily, Gonzalo, the King’s advisor, sneaks Prospera’s tomes on the raft so she’s able to use sorcery to survive. Prospera and Miranda crash on an almost deserted island, staying alive with the help of the “monster” Caliban. 12 years later, Prospera discovers her nemeses sailing close to the island. She orchestrates a plot to shipwreck them, wreaking vengeance on her enemies. Shakespeare’s beautifully crafted words evoke rich emotion and explore universal themes of jealousy, vengeance, betrayal, love and forgiveness.
So why did director Julie Taymor make the gender switch? She said that she wanted to film an adaptation but couldn’t think of any amazing men to play the lead role of Prospero. She thought it would be “more powerful with a woman.” Then she bumped into Helen Mirren at a party. The two talked and Mirren said that her first acting role was as the male slave Caliban. When Mirren told Taymor that she “could play Prospero as a woman,” Taymor decided to cast the fantastic Mirren as the avenging sorcerer.
“This character, whether it’s played by a man or a woman, is full of vengefulness and anger.”
So what did shifting the role of Prospero into Prospera do for the story? What commentary did it make? In the original play, Prospero is the duke. But in the film, Mirren is the wife of the duke, accused of his murder by her “witchcraft.” As Taymor says the mere fact that she’s a woman makes her a target. But I have to say, watching the film, I kept waiting for another layer to be revealed, a commentary on society keeping women down or changing the father/daughter role to a mother/daughter role, to yield the bond between mothers and daughters or even the strains between them. Yet the gender switch elicited none of that.
What IS interesting is the commentary the play and the film make on colonialism. It’s interesting that the only person of color in the film is Hounsou as the “monster” Caliban, the original inhabitant of the island who teaches Prospera and Miranda how to find food and survive and they in turn teach him their language and religion. In the film and the play, Caliban becomes Prospero’s slave due to an attempted rape of Miranda. While making a comment on the stereotype of “savage natives,” it also resonates with settlers conquering a land and then dominating their residents.
Mirren gives a witty yet ferocious performance as the educated sorceress, wronged duchess and protective mother. Mirren enchants with her uncanny ability to convey emotion with a flash of her eyes or a pursing of her lips. You feel her tormented fury. Djimon Hounsou fantastically portrays the enraged and enslaved creature Caliban. Ben Wishaw (“Ariel”) is also good as the compassionate spirit doing Prospera’s bidding, yearning for freedom. There’s an enormous amount of talent here in addition to Mirren, Hounsou and Wishaw: Alan Cumming, Alfred Molina, Tom Conti, Chris Cooper, David Straitharn. But sadly, no one, not even Dame Mirren herself can save this boring film.
The scenes between Molina (“Stephano”), Russell Brand as “Trinculo” (what the fuck is HE doing here?!) and Hounsou (“Caliban”) are surprisingly funny. And the scenes with Cooper (Prospera’s brother “Antonio”) and Cumming (“Sebastian”), scheming and plotting against Straitharn (“King Alonso”) and Conti (“Gonzalo”) are interesting yet never really go anywhere. Most of the film meanders with not much tension. But the most annoying scenes are the ones between Prospera’s daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones) and Prince Ferdinand (Reeve Carney). They fall in love at first sight, blah, blah, blah. Their scenes are painfully wretched. Omg and to make matters worse, Ferdinand serenades Miranda with a love song (one of Shakespeare’s poems)…an awful song made worse because the dude can’t sing! I kept hoping for a thunderbolt to strike him…or me to put me out of my misery.
I expected a visually lush film. Filmed in Hawaii, the scenery is breathtaking accompanied by unique camera angle, stunning shots and striking costumes. But the CGI special effects look cheap, particularly when Prospera’s minion, the air spirit Ariel executes her bidding. There’s a trippy scene in which Ariel sets fire to a ship and the effects look awful. The soundtrack distracts from the story rather than enhancing it. Too often the score breaks out into electric guitars like a bad version of Rent. The campy effects and atrocious music continually wrench you out of the film.
Critically-acclaimed Taymor has impressed audiences with her talents in films such as Frida and Across the Universe and in plays like The Lion King. Perhaps she was distracted with her problematically plagued opus Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway because this film simply doesn’t deliver. It contains all the right components and yet somehow doesn’t succeed. The only reason to see this film is for Mirren’s nuanced yet bravura performance.
Bottom line: All of the actors deserve better here.