Feminism / Films

Something Wicked This Way Comes: Spellbinding Helen Mirren Can’t Save the Film ‘The Tempest’ From Sinking

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 shecould play Prospero as a woman, Taymor decided to cast the fantastic Mirren as the avenging sorcerer.

Mirren is not the first female actor to play the role.  Vanessa Redgrave played Prospero androgynously, as a force of nature.  In an interview about the role of Prospera, Helen Mirren says,

“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.

25 thoughts on “Something Wicked This Way Comes: Spellbinding Helen Mirren Can’t Save the Film ‘The Tempest’ From Sinking

  1. What struck me about the tail-end of 2010, was how many exceptional films were released!
    This past Autumn, i saw more films in the theater, than i had in the last three years combined.

    My favorites (in order):

    1. The Town (Jeremy Renner is gonna be a HUGE player in the years to come, and Ben Affleck has proven what a talented director he is, with both this film & the previous, Gone baby gone).

    2. Black Swan (despite meeting & being dissed by Natalie Portman many years ago, i’ve never doubted her incredible talent, no matter what role she portrayed.
    Black Swan will forever be THE film that captured everything
    she is capable of.)

    3. Let me in (Like many, i was horrified that one of the most beautiful & poetic films ever, Let the right one in, was going to be “re-imagined” by Hollywood.
    Fortunately, stellar direction & the amazing, Chloe Grace Moretz, made this a worthwhile remake of the Swedish classic).

    4. The Social Network (I happen to love everything Jesse Eisenberg appears in: The Squid & the whale, Adventureland, but his portrayal of Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was both ruthless & tender.
    There was an incredible balance there, and Eisenberg nailed every nuance.
    Of course, an incredible script & director didn’t hurt, either!)

    5. Easy A (On the surface it appears another shallow, teen orientated comedy, but a smart script & stellar acting, raises this re-imagining of ‘The Scarlett letter’ to glorious heights.
    Emma Stone is extremely easy on the eyes, but she’s also gifted with a graceful presence and very strong comedic skills.
    This girl is funny, but not stupid/obvious funny.
    She’s got an edge.)

  2. Ahhhhhhhh!!!!

    I forgot, “Winter’s Bone.”

    That is my number one pick, even ahead of “The Town.”
    Jennifer Lawrence is spellbinding in this film, as a dirt-poor teen trying to raise her younger siblings, while her mom is absent in a meth-induced, catatonic state.
    Meanwhile, her dad is on the lam, and the authorities are threatening to repossess the family home.

    Beautifully directed by Debra Granik, and wonderfully acted, this film actually made me cry during the credits.
    The musical score is also gorgeous.

  3. Interesting picks for great movies, Julian. I haven’t seen Let Me In or Easy A YET, but I am interested in seeing them in the future. I have to disagree with you on two picks, however.

    I certainly had fun seeing The Social Network, but I wouldn’t rate it as highly as I might most other films. It had great actors, but the characters are so unlikable that it sours the experience for me somewhat. Am I really supposed to feel sorry for millionaire Harvard alums? Otherwise I thought it was pretty good, just not one of the year’s best.

    I REALLY liked Winter’s Bone. I don’t however understand what has made people LOVE it so much. It’s a fine film, and with an excellent Jennifer Lawrence in the lead it’s well worth the watch. Actually, the Opinioness might want to see this one as it should definitely appeal to her, and is directed by a woman as well.

  4. I’m with Julian. ‘Winter’s Bone’ and ‘The Social Network’ would both be in my top 5…and likely ‘Black Swan’ too. I don’t agree John that you have to like the characters for the movie to be great. The movie had such a great way with language (both visual and spoken) that I couldn’t avert my eyes.

    Jennifer Lawrence was great (and nomination worthy) in ‘Winter’s Bone’ but I’m really pulling for John Hawkes to get some notice. The guy is always phenomenal and here he got to play a character with several layers. He was pretty bad ass.

  5. You guys are both dead-on.

    John Hawkes was mesmerizing in “Winter’s Bone.”
    When he says, “Is this gonna be our time, Sherrif?”, all the hairs on my arm stood up.

    I also agree that the opinioness needs to rent this film.
    The main character, Ree Dolly, is incredibly strong & unflinching, yet the scenes where she allowed herself to show fear (and who wouldn’t have?), made me fall in love with her even more.
    Also, incredible direction from Debra Granick.
    For me, it’s one of those rare, perfect films.

    I thought “The social network” was a fascinating film.
    You have these elitist Harvard braniacs, but amongst them, there are the typical cliques of students.
    Remember how desparately Zuckerberg wanted to be recognized by that group, who’m invited his roomate?
    He just couldn’t let go of the rejection, no matter how succesful he became.
    The same situation with his girlfriend.
    The viewer could observe everything he was doing wrong, in their interaction, but he simply could not.
    That’s part of what made the ending so enduring.

    And Jesse Eisenburg really nailed the character.
    I don’t think he portrayed Zuckerberg in a completely unflattering light, i think he was also sympathetic.

    Gianni recomended, “The Fighter,” and i’m really anxious to see it.
    I think Boston makes an alluring backdrop, for all these interesting films.

  6. I just watched, “Easy A” again, last night.

    That scene where Emma Stone is dancing with her somber-looking dog, while she lip syncs that “Pocketfull of sunshine” song, cracked me up!

    And all because her grandmother sent her five dollars, in one of those “musical” cards!

  7. I just completely ignored your latest comments, Julian, as I have Easy A in my DVD player awaiting viewing and don’t want you spoiling it 😦 But I’m looking forward to it, most definitely.

    And I DID like Social Network and True Grit, Brian. I just think they’re overrated films, and but for their few flaws might have made my top 5. For the record, those films are:

    5) The Fighter
    4) Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
    3) Inception
    2) The King’s Speech
    1) Black Swan

  8. But you know with the Oscars coming up, it will grab some nominations just because people feel Bridges was snubbed. EW has it in their predicted nominations for Best picture.

    Metacritic has True Grit listed at a score of 80 based on 40 reviews. That sounds about right to me.

  9. I don’t know man, I just dug how it had a classic western feel without getting all Coen Brother-y. And I loved how Josh Brolin was a nitwit. You won’t find better use of language in a movie from last year, that’s for sure.

  10. I just watched “The Hurt Locker” (i know, i’m a little behind in my movie viewing), and despite the annoying Nu-metal score, i enjoyed the film.

    Again, Jeremy Renner is a force to be reckoned with.
    A lot of it was typical “edge of your seat” while he attempts to defuse a bomb in Iraq, but i also enjoyed the
    more personal stories buried within the main premise.

    I haven’t seen True Grit, though i’m not sure i want to.
    Jeff Bridges has become the Betty White of film.
    Suddenley, he’s everywhere & everyone loves him.

  11. I predicted Renner as a star after seeing him as the benevolent sniper in ’28 Weeks Later’.

    Julian, I loved Bridges after seeing him in King Kong 1977. People love him because he’s a good actor, but he’s not a “star”, at least not like Tom Cruise. He creates characters and then he disappears into them.

  12. I liked the Fabulous Baker Boys, does that count?
    I think his brother was in that, as well.

    I just feel like he’s over saturating the market.
    Didn’t he just get a billion accolades for, “Crazy Heart?”
    Then, i’m also constantly reminded of over-rated pictures like, “The Big Lebowski,” by every 40 year old “frat boy” in existence.

    “The dude abides!”


    Hysterical, dude.

  13. I’d take Jeff Spicolli over “the dude”, any day of the week.

    “Jeff, what are you doing?”
    “Havin’ some pizza ‘n learnin’ about Cuba.”
    “Jeff, why do you constantly waste my time?”
    “Mr. Hand…if your here…and i’m here…doesn’t that make it
    our time?”

  14. I’m 36 and most definitely not a frat boy and yet I love ‘The Big Lebowski’. Julian, you’re just letting the hype get to you! Having said that, I wouldn’t be caught dead at a Lebowski convention/party. Can’t stand the fans who love it just for the quotable dialogue they can screw up while getting sloshed on white russians and not for the brilliant Raymond Chandler riff that it is.

    • Most of the people i hate, love that movie.
      This fact forever taints “The Big Lebowski” for me.
      I don’t want to like what Maxim-reading, beer swilling, “Sweet Caroline” singing, meatheaded jock/frat-tards, like.

      Did you see, “The Last Exorcism,” Brian?
      I really enjoyed it, up until the WTF ending.

  15. Haha, I did see The Last Exorcism. I loved it. I saw it in theatres and again this past weekend. I’m not going to spoil it here but I loved the ending precisely because I didn’t see it coming. I loved the switcheroo it played on us, but then again, I’m a big fan of the type of movie it switched to. If that makes any sense?

    I’m with you on the majority of Lebowski fans. I love ‘Fast Times” as well and, well, Spicoli has few equals. As much as I like “The Dude” my favorite characters from Lebowski are Walter and Donnie.

    • Yeah, the ending was…uh…out there (but, hey, it took me by surprise too, though i never trusted that brother, to begin with).

      I loved the preacher!
      That guy was excellent, as was Ashley Bell.
      I loved how Bell’s character never takes off those badass boots!
      She loved those boots!

  16. I thought Cotton Marcus was a great character. Funny and with a “superior than thou” attitude that slowly crumbled as the movie went on. I thought he had a great arc actually. Loved the girl as well. She did a tremendous job and everyone I saw it with loved how she got the boots. I actually bought the movie and will probably watch it again soon.

    • I loved the film up until the point that Jeff Bridge’s character swaggers in and says:

      “I may just be a Louisiana cowboy with a crazy ex-wife & a boulder sized chip on his shoulder, but i reckon whatever demon, derelict or deadbeat is plaguing this woman, i gotta good mind to stare Satan straight in the face and say…BRING…IT…ON…motherf@&@*#R!”

  17. I don’t remember that part Julian. I guess I need to watch it again. Maybe there’s a director’s cut?

    I also thought the actor that played the father did a tremendous job.

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