More famous for her Broadway productions of The Lion King and the upcoming Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark than for films such as Titus, Frida, and Across the Universe, Julie Taymor has brought a new version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest to the screen. As is often the case with contemporary versions of Shakespeare, Taymor tries to update and refresh the play by changing the male lead, Prospero, to a female, Prospera (Helen Mirren). But that proves the least of problems for this truly appalling version of one of Shakespeare’s finest plays.
Commonly considered Shakespeare’s valedictory because of the main character’s focus on mortality and persistent reflection on the purpose of art, The Tempest is an atypical play—and not just because of its fantastical setting. There is, in fact, very little action in the play. In performances of The Tempest on stage or screen, the poetry must be made, or allowed, to do more work than other Shakespeare dramas. Among the many things Taymor’s version misses, this is perhaps the chief oversight. In far too many scenes, ambient noise and technological excess overwhelm the language.
The Tempest’s plot runs thus. Now stranded on an island with his daughter, Miranda, Prospero once ruled as Duke of Milan, an office whose duties he neglected in pursuit of knowledge, described both as a kind of magic and as training in the liberal arts. Overthrown by his ambitious brother Antonio, who conspired with King Alonso of Naples, Prospero is put on a boat with Miranda and abandoned at sea. Only the compassion of the King’s counselor, Gonzalo, who gives them supplies and Prospero’s cherished books, saves them from perdition. Landing on a remote island, Prospero and Miranda discover two inhabitants: the beastly Caliban, offspring of the malevolent witch Sycorax, and the ethereal Ariel, a spirit endowed with magical powers but imprisoned in a tree by the witch, who has since died. Using his magic, Prospero frees Ariel, binding him in service to his liberator. Returning from his daughter’s wedding in Tunis, Alonso—along with Antonio, Gonzalo, the King’s son Ferdinand, the court jester (Trinculo), and a butler (Sebastian)—pass Prospero’s island. Observing the chance event and seizing the opportunity for restoration, Prospero has Ariel cause a tremendous storm that shipwrecks the entire crew. With his betrayers now at his mercy, Prospero must orchestrate a restoration of justice in his dukedom even as he wavers between vengeance and mercy.
Taymor’s cinematographic version follows the plot fairly closely. The major alteration is, of course, in the election of a female lead. Alfred Molina, who plays Sebastian, and who worked with Taymor in Frida, calls the changing of Prospero to Prospera “a stroke of genius…Instead of ‘another old wizard,’ suddenly it’s this kind of rather gorgeous woman who’s calling the shots. It just gives it a whole new perspective.” One wonders: For whom in today’s audience does the Prospera character count as a fresh take? The legion of moviegoers schooled in traditional theater productions of the The Tempest?
Stroke of genius or not, Mirren as Prospera delivers the play’s best performance. At least she can handle the language—something that cannot be said of the majority of the film’s other actors, who seem comically ill-suited to mouthing the words of Shakespeare. As Miranda, Felicity Jones is barely passable. But Reeve Carney’s Sebastian, who woos Miranda while looking like a young James Taylor, offers a disastrous performance as a sort of mentally vacant teen heartthrob. Russell Bran downgrades the slapstick of Trinculo and turns in a performance better suited to a stand-up routine on Comedy Central.
From the perspective of literary criticism, the main reason for substituting Prospera for Prospero is to rescue the play from its alleged colonialism and patriarchy. With the powerful male Prospero as the sole educator of his daughter and the enforcer of the servitude of Caliban (a character of color from Algiers), critics sometimes see the play as the embodiment of the vices of white, male, Western rule. The crude, binary conception of power (white, male, and Western is bad; non-white, non-male, and non-Western is good) operative in the critique obscures from view the supply analysis of power in the play.
In reducing the play’s emphasis on Prospero/Prospera’s cultivation of the “liberal arts” to a passion for sorcery, Taymor’s film misses Shakespeare’s reflection on the tension between philosophy and politics, liberty and necessity. Questions of justice abound. How should betrayers be punished? Does mercy play a role in political rule? Is it fair to require service from characters such as Ariel whose natures seem suited to unfettered freedom? What is the responsibility of governments to criminal characters such as Caliban? To what extent is the education and reform of such a character possible and its pursuit obligatory? What ought to be done when the goal of reform conflicts with the duty to protect the innocent? Are there limits to the use of techniques (weapons of force or arts of illusion) in political rule? To what extent and in what manner is it possible for the arts of poetry and politics, closely allied in this film, to inculcate virtue and foster the common good? Can poetry contribute to the philosophical goal of achieving self-knowledge?
These questions will not likely enter the minds of film viewers of Taymor’s version of the play, which alternates between the bizarre and the boring, as large stretches of the film depict rather pointless acts and speeches not dramatically connected to the main plot. Especially regrettable is the portrayal of Ariel. Instead of seeing Ariel, who maintains human affections and passions, as a character that transcends gender and sexuality, the filmmakers draw attention to what they deem Ariel’s sexual ambiguity, with the camera lingering on her bosom just a bit too salaciously. In scenes where Ariel’s artistry is on full display, the filmmakers seem eager instead to display their own technological prowess. These are the worst scenes in the entire film. The crucial revelation scene, in which Ariel concocts a vision from the underworld to accuse the traitors (“three men of sin”), looks like a lost scene from Ghostbusters. The remaining computer-generated material seems dated, as if derived from the style of early MTV videos. Neither radical enough in its revisionism for jaded critics, nor trendy enough for the Twilight/Inception generation of fans, the film manages to appeal to no target audience whatsoever. But poor marketing strategy is the least of its troubles. Inattentive to its source material, The Tempest is ignorant of the perilous powers of art, and its capacity to transform souls.
Thomas Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. His first book on popular culture, Shows About Nothing (2000), is being rereleased in a revised, updated, and expanded version by Baylor University Press.