This post could also be titled, “How To Be Awesome Like Helen Mirren,” who’s inspiringly brilliant in almost every role. And it could be titled, “How To Be Awesome Like Julie Taymor,” who can claim no unabashed successes, and at least one spectacular failure (Spiderman: The Musical anyone?); Yet her vision always dazzles. In the realm of contemporary, Shakespearean film adaptation, Taymor acts as the unchained Id to Kenneth Branagh’s Superego. Her decision to alter the Great Bard’s The Tempest by changing his unhinged wizard Prospero into a woman, Prospera, is genius. And who else to cast in such a role than Mirren?
A quick perusal of Rotten Tomatoes reveals mostly disdain for the film (a mere 29% fresh!) with some strong endorsements. Much dislike, I imagine, stems from those who don’t like Taymor, who seems committed to the notion of the auteur to such a degree that one must appreciate her vision to enjoy anything she makes. However, The Tempest proves perfectly suited to her spectacular style. Unlike in Titus, where the arresting visuals undercut the believability of its ancient setting, Shakespeare’s rocky island exists outside the bounds of history, physics, and proper society (and always has, I might add). This makes it a perfect forum for Taymor’s schizophrenic costuming, flashy computer effects, unorthodox cast, and frenetic synth-jazz score. In the end, her version balances fairly traditional interpretations and performances with a modern, exciting screen rendition.
But, of course, the most significant change is the gender-bending of the main character. Some critics claimed that the change to Prospera made the character’s rage at the slave Caliban’s (Djimon Hounsou) attempted rape of her daughter, Miranda (Felicity Jones), more potent and believable. Setting aside the insult to fathers in such a remark, the mother-daughter relationship does provide emotional resonance to Prospera’s bleak world. We get the impression that she desires to escape, at least in part, to give her daughter a full life while comprehending that means letting Miranda leave the circle of her protection. In this way, the tale works as a metaphor for parenthood and childhood, as much as anything else.
Yet it does not stay there and, indeed, supersedes it. If Prospera’s motherhood seemingly deepens the parent-child dynamic of the play, her womanhood also enhances her rage at being deposed as the Duchess of Milan, her desire for vengeance against the brother and other men who betrayed her, and her deeply conflicted forgiveness of her wrongers–perhaps out of pity, perhaps rationality, perhaps a sacrifice for her child. To see a woman enraged, potent, calculating, tender, self-sufficient, and, in the last, successful is to see a woman we rarely get on film. In this way, Prospera is literally awesome. Perhaps it is interesting, and worth thinking on, that we get this impressive female character when she had been transformed from a male one.
Still, it’s an imperfect film. Like certain other Shakespeare plays, such as The Merchant of Venice, it defies categorization and thus gets lumped rather oddly under the heading of “comedy.” So while Russell Brand and the brilliant Alfred Molina give their all to the fools Trinculo and Stephano, their scenes tend to incite more teeth clenching than giggling. More disappointing, Djimon Hounsou is entirely wasted, and Caliban remains opaque. Taymor refuses to gloss over this problematic aspect of an early Colonialist text, but she also fails to do much with it either. The expertly rendered Ariel (Ben Whishaw) could have been played up in contrast to Caliban; Caliban, like Prospera, could have been re-envisioned to make use of Hounsou’s considerable talents; or she could even have had him courageously embrace his malevolence as she did with Titus‘s Aaron (Harry Lennix). Instead, he’s left present but undeveloped, an enigma, full of sound and fury, signifying our Id’s inability to cope with his existence, what it represents, and what it could mean. Perhaps The Tempest needs its own Wide Sargasso Sea; the tale of the sorceress Sycorax could make an intriguing feminist and colonialist tale to offset that of those who enslave her son.
This clip shows both the potency of Mirren’s performance and the style of Taymor’s film. If only we could all be awesome like Prospera.