The Tempest

To date I’ve seen three adaptations of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. All were abysmal. All left me questioning just what I’d ever seen in the play. My theory behind the difficulty in staging/filming it is that it may be the most complex play Shakespeare ever wrote. Firstly, it’s an amalgamation of every style of play he’d written before: the romance of Romeo & Juliet, the fantasy and self-reflexivity of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the political intrigue of the Histories, the slapstick and verbal comedy of Twelfth Night, the revenge tragedy of Hamlet, the controversial characterization of The Merchant of Venice, the unresolved tonal center of the problem plays, and the remote setting of As You Like It. He also (in rare form) decided to observe the classic unity of time (where the play’s action occurs in real time), which compressed the Act/Scene divisions (there’s only nine scenes in five acts), while balancing three distinctly different groups of characters, which created about nine or ten different relationship dynamics and an erratic tone.

Suffice it to say, any producer/director/screenwriter has their hands full figuring out how to sort through this mess of genius.

Despite my awful track record I had high hopes for Julie Taymor’s film version. In 1999 Taymor did a spectacular adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus starring Anthony Hopkins. Under Taymor’s direction the play, so widely cited as Shakespeare’s worst, became a phantasmagoric smorgasbord of costumes, settings, music, that actually nailed something I think so few realized about the play—that it was as much a parody of sensationalist revenge dramas as it was a revenge drama itself. My great hope was that Taymor could bring to The Tempest what she so brilliantly brought to Titus.

The play and film concerns the wizard Prospera (Helen Mirren—in the play it was a man named Prospero), the former Duchess of Milan who was forcibly banished, along with her daughter, Miranda (Felicity Jones), by her brother, Antonio (Chris Cooper), and Alonso (David Straithairn). For twelve years she lived practically alone on a remote island, practicing her craft while bringing the magical spirit Ariel (Ben Whishaw) and the aboriginal native Caliban (Djimon Hounsou) under her command. Eventually, she seizes an opportunity to call up a huge tempest that crashes the boat of Alonso and Antonio on the island, along with the faithful servant, Gonzalo (Tom Conti); Sebastian (Alan Cumming); Alonso’s son Prince Ferdinand (Reeve Carney); a drunken butler, Stephano (Alfred Molina); and the court jester, Trinculo (Russel Brand), so that she can get her revenge and play matchmaker to her daughter.

My initial hopes were somewhat dashed when I read the critical lambasting the film received. Common critiques have been praise for Mirren and the choice of making Prospero female, rants against Brand, confusion towards Honsou, boredom towards Straithairn and co., and cynicism towards Carney and Jones. Most don’t seem impressed either by the choice of music or the visual effects. It’s been called kitschy, bombastic… perhaps the overarching criticism is that it “simply doesn’t come together fluidly,” as Claudia Puig said. But many of the negative criticisms could’ve been said of the play itself. It’s always a challenge reducing Shakespeare’s 5-act plays into 3-act films, and it becomes nigh impossible with one as intricately interwoven as The Tempest. The greatest problem any artist would suffer would be to manage those jarring juxtapositions of, eg, the low, bawdy comedy of Stephano and Trinculo with the elegant poetry of Caliban.

Taymor’s “solution” is not to try to suppress or smooth any of it out, but rather to let it play in all of its discordance. Ebert stated that Taymor “doesn’t capture Shakespeare’s tone… or his meaning,” but I couldn’t disagree more, because Shakespeare’s tone precisely is that jarring combination of high art and low art, comedy with tragedy, reality with fantasy… and perhaps no play shifts tones with the alacrity of The Tempest. Most see it as his farewell letter to his métier, but it was equally his most ostentatious “let me show ‘em what I can do… everything and the kitchen sink” final magic trick. That “…and the kitchen sink” sense is what Taymor achieves. Perhaps she doesn’t achieve the fluidity and flawlessness of Shakespeare, but who could? Part of me thinks it’s because we’ve become spoiled by “realism” in film, and there aren’t many points in this film where Taymor goes for realism. Something like the gabardine scene, which finds Trinculo and Caliban huddled under a blanket, hiding from Stephano, comes off as just plain weird in film.

Lavish praise has been rightly heaped on Mirren and, indeed, her performance is so strong that it made me wish Prospero had been written as a woman from the beginning. Djimon Hounsou’s Caliban has been the most under-appreciated contribution. With the benefit of incredible makeup and modern Japanese dance, Hounsou has captured the ambiguous mystique of the character, which effortlessly vacillates between childlike naivety, ferocious strength, and dreamlike poetry. Whishaw’s Ariel is nearly as accomplished, and the tender relationship he forms with Mirren’s Prospera proves to be the most poignant and uniquely highlighted aspects from the play. He also gets to sing (quite well) some of the finest poetry in all Shakespeare. Jones and Carney as the young lovers won’t fool anyone into thinking they’re skilled, seasoned Shakespearean actors, yet their lack of experience serves to capture the romantic naivety of the characters. Alfred Molina effortlessly nails the drunken Stephano, with just a right hint of darkness that the original has without losing the vivacious humor. As for Brand, I think the worst that can be said is that he overplays, yet, what is it to overplay a Shakespearean clown? Such overplaying was practically demanded of such characters in Shakespeare’s day, and Brand is nothing if not an incredibly fast and sharp-witted modern clown. I will grant that the “court” quartet of Straithairn, Gonzalo, Sebastian, and Antonio come off as flat compared to everyone else.

As for the production, the costuming received a well-deserved Oscar nomination. Much like with Titus, Taymor creates a look that’s both familiar and alien, evocative of periods without ever pinning the adaptation down to any place or time. The location also achieves that same effect. Taymor says in the excellent hour-long Making Of documentary that they got the right to film in a volcanic location of Hawaii that is rarely visited or seen. The locale does evoke much of the play’s paradoxes, from the spare, barren harshness of the deserts, to the knotted trees and marshes, to the beauty of the beaches. The interiors of Prospera’s abode are even more imaginatively rendered, creating expressionistic studies by mixing the various looks of the location itself.

The cinematography and special effects have also been unfairly overlooked or criticized, perhaps because Taymor never rests on her laurels and is always looking for new, inventive modes of expression. The early flashback, where Prospera explains to Miranda the story of their royalty and banishment is accompanied by sets that feel like a modern take on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Elsewhere there are stunningly beautiful shots of Ariel’s face and body underwater, colored by whatever flora is nearby, which was achieved with a special photographic setup that placed two planes of glass filled with water between the camera and actor. The “Masque” that accompanies Ferdinand and Miranda’s union is equally imaginatively rendered, with Taymor creating a celestial spirit play with many images drawn from Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks (one negative is that she doesn’t stay with it long enough). Elsewhere, the deep, natural reds and browns of a canyon in sunset serves as a beautiful, womb-like atmosphere for the lovers, which contrasts against the desaturated grays, blacks, and blues of the forest that the court members find themselves entangled in.

The music by Elliot Goldenthal is one of the few elements in the film that seems rather tonally consistent. Most of it is in the dreamy, elegiac tone, which might pejoratively be called “new age music,” (think Enya), yet Taymor sprinkles it in as a spice and never allows it to overwhelm the film itself. Both Ariel’s “Full Fathom’s Five” and “Where the Bee Sucks” mini-monologues are accompanied beautifully by Goldenthal’s music, with the former paired with the aforementioned water/glass photographic effect and the latter set against some of the most ecstatically liberating visual effects in the film as Ariel merges with the ocean itself. Goldenthal also pulled off a small miracle by getting the ethereal vocal goddess Beth Gibbons from Portishead to sing Prospera’s Coda over the closing credits, one of the many subtly brilliant changes Taymor makes to the original text that truly creates the haunting, poignant, lingering quality of Shakespeare’s play itself.

Ultimately, perhaps the only way to appreciate what Taymor accomplished here is to tally up the changes she made to the play, as well as those she kept and focused on, and realize that she has, in no small part, created something very akin to the rich ambiguity of the masterpiece it was adapted from. What I see in the reviews I’ve read is critics missing the forest for the trees AND missing the trees for the forest; they look at the whole and lament that it doesn’t come together coherently or they look at the parts and say they don’t work well in isolation, yet that bizarre relationship between the macro and micro is a quality that the play itself shares. Like so many of Shakespeare’s best, what it means, what it adds up to completely depends on what aspects you look at and one of the things that keeps him so relevant is that no one individual ever sees the whole picture on all levels. Taymor’s work is elegiac; it is poetic and bawdy and bombastic and melodramatic and furious and bold and tender and melancholic…

No, the film is by no means perfect, but hell, at this point I can’t imagine a “perfect” adaptation of The Tempest. What would it possibly be like? If anything, Taymor’s version is something even more interesting than a “perfect” adaptation—it’s a boldly ambitious one. I may just have to put it up there with a film like Aronofsky’s The Fountain as a visually, tonally, and thematically audacious film that, unfortunately for their box-offices, seem completely antithetical to what modern critics and audiences are looking for. Both will be ripe for rediscovery in the decades to come, and I hope I can be there to herald their rightful appreciation. Indeed, critical opinions are themselves baseless fabric… such stuff as dreams are made on.