by Tony Dayoub
I've long defended director Julie Taymor from detractors who accuse her of sacrificing substance for spectacle. Titus (1999) may have been eye candy but it was also a fairly brutal, if not the most brutal, depiction of a Shakespeare play I had ever seen onscreen. And Frida, a film about the painful life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo which wonderfully incorporated the Latin magical realism tradition amply demonstrated throughout the painter's work, was one of the best pictures of 2002. I guess the rumblings about Taymor's style began around the time Across the Universe (2007) came out, which I just chalked up to the film being a sort of trifle celebrating the music of The Beatles. Too bad I can't speak directly to it since I missed that film, but I feel like I understand some of this criticism now that I've seen The Tempest.
First, I thought The Tempest would feel a bit darker. It's been years since I read Shakespeare's play, I'll admit. But the story of exiled wizard Prospero living on a desolate island, obsessively protecting his daughter Miranda from the world (in the form of the island's sole native, the gnarly Caliban) and eventually having to come to terms with the circumstances that got him there, a betrayal by his brother which led to the usurping of his dukedom, well, that always struck me as a rather dark tale, despite its redemptive conclusion. But after the film's opening moments—the Duke Alonso (David Strathairn), son Ferdinand (Reve Carney), and the rest of his court (Tom Conti, Chris Cooper, and Alan Cumming) ride out a conjured storm before crashing on a volcanic island—the film settles into a lukewarm mood which it never really recovers from.
One conceit which may be to blame is the softening of the wizard by recasting the role as Prospera, a female played by Helen Mirren. Mirren can certainly be as formidable as any man. However, the central dynamic of a possessive father exercising that level of control over his sheltered daughter carried the tension of a psychosexual undercurrent, a tension now absent with a female as the parent. Now Prospera's seclusion of Miranda (Felicity Jones) feels justified in a way it didn't before, a response to the evil collusion of the men who deposed Prospera from her rightful position as Duke, a desire to protect Miranda from a sexist world. In other words, I don't object to Mirren's casting, but to the fundamental change in dynamics that recasting the female part does to the story; it neuters it.
It's a shame, too, because The Tempest's visuals are still quite a sight to behold. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh's shots beautifully alternate between some wondrous closeups of Mirren and wide vistas of the volcanic Hawaiian landscape where the film was shot. There is still the usual layering of images on top of each other, Renaissance-inflected graphics which often appear when Prospera casts her spells including one moment when she summons an eclipse. The costume design by Sandy Powell contributes to the lushness, gorgeous courtly attire which manages to incorporate some quite obvious zippers in a nod to Taymor's predilection for anachronisms. And special credit goes to the makeup department for the evocative prosthetics applied to Djimon Honsou as Caliban and Ben Whishaw as Ariel.
True, The Tempest operates on a cinematic level which obviously seems to be what Taymor was focusing on. And Mirren is a fascinating, offbeat selection to play Prospera. I'm just not sure this change wasn't a fundamental one which somehow robs the original text in a way Taymor wasn't aiming for.
The Tempest is the Centerpiece film for the 48th New York Film Festival, and is playing at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Saturday, October 2nd, at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023.
Director Julie Taymor will discuss her film as part of the HBO Films Directors' Dialogues series at 5 p.m. Sunday, October 3rd, at the Lincoln Center's Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, David B. and Samuel Rose Building, 10th Floor, West 65th Street between Broadway & Amsterdam Avenue.
For more ticket information go online here, or call (212) 875-5050