Anyone who remembers Julie Taymor’s 1999 version of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first published play, will not be expecting a reverential treatment of what is reputedly his last, but Taymor’s new film does move more or less inexorably to the play’s final wisdom: ‘The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance.’ The Tempest is a difficult play, fraught with tensions that resonate perhaps even more forcefully in our time than in Shakespeare’s, but overall it is pervaded by a sense of ‘lastness’, of moving almost painfully towards resolution of what may have seemed irreconcilable conflicts, as if its author shared with Miranda her view of a ‘brave new world / That has such people in’t’.
This is not a play with a powerful forward narrative thrust, in the manner of, say, Macbeth. The Tempest is more ruminative as it draws its several threads together. There is, though, a lot going on, with three main arenas of action, all taking their starting point from the eponymous storm and resulting shipwreck that bring upheaval to the worlds of Prospero and Miranda, of the slave Caliban, and of the royal castaways. Over these diverse groupings hovers the figure of Prospero himself, as puppet master and magician, standing metaphorically perhaps for the playwright with his own command over his created drama and appraising the values of the life he has lived.
The Tempest has attracted film-makers of maverick hue. Two of the most recent screen adaptations were Derek Jarman’s in 1979 and Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books in 1991. Actually, Jarman’s film, despite some bizarre trappings (e.g. Elizabeth Welch, as a ‘goddess’, leading a chorus of sailors in ‘Stormy Weather’), offered a surprisingly plain reading of the text. Greenaway was essentially more venturesome, and to eloquent effect, virtually setting the whole film in Prospero’s mind and stressing his manipulation of all the other characters, to the point of speaking most of their lines. Above all, he had a legendary stage Prospero, John Gielgud, at the centre of this imaginative and resourceful film-making, which made us see the original work in a new light – surely the real goal of adaptation.
Taymor’s Titus created the network of jealousies at work in the Roman Empire with a fine visual sweep that brought the saga of ‘revenge begetting revenge’ to potent screen life. The film was often breathtaking in its panoramic compositions or sudden close-ups, boldly juxtaposing ancient Rome with 1930s music or with young punks drinking beer from cans. Flamboyant stuff, but preferable to that reverence before the idea of Shakespeare that stifles imagination.
Now, with The Tempest, she calls on some of the same cinematic daring, if not perhaps with quite the same success in tackling a more complex play. The abiding challenge in filming Shakespeare is the reconciling of the screen’s remorseless demand for a level of visual realism with the equally remorseless artifice of the iambic pentameters. Sometimes Taymor overdoes the realism effect, filling the screen with wonderful shots of daunting terrains (various Hawaiian locations), then cutting to a huge close-up of a face or to a wild flight of fantasy, as in creating Ariel’s ubiquitous exercise of his powers.
The centrepiece is of course Prospero – or Prospera, as she has become in Taymor’s view of the play. In Helen Mirren’s incarnation, she is utterly dominant physically, whether depicted on a rocky outcrop against the sky or observing the results of her handiwork as (the adolescent) Miranda and Ferdinand respond to each other. No one else in the film has anything like such a presence (except maybe Caliban, whose skin looks like a parched lake bed), and Mirren speaks the lines with the authority of wisdom and experience as the many close-ups attest, with some touches of unexpected humour. The issue of gender has often been raised in relation to this play, which seems to insist on the absoluteness of patriarchy, but Taymor mines it provocatively, and Mirren is persuasive enough to ward off accusations of mere trendiness.
The other contemporary resonance is in the way the play touches on matters of post-colonial critique. At the most obvious level, Caliban has been relegated to the most inhospitable parts of the island, and the African actor Djimon Hounsou projects the anger and poignancy of the subjugated ‘native’. At film’s end he, too, is embraced in the new spirit of reconciliation, just as Ben Whishaw’s androgynous Ariel is given his freedom. The autocrat Prospera has given way to a new spirit of understanding and forgiveness, surrendering her more-than-human powers by hurling their symbol, her staff, into the sea.
Some of the beauty of the verse is sacrificed to the film’s visual flamboyance, starting with the brilliantly staged shipwreck, but film is a visual medium. If sometimes the stunning vistas seem too artfully composed, the compensation is in close-ups that do brilliant service to the play’s intentions – and words.
The Tempest, written and directed by Julie Taymor. 109 minutes. Rated M. Released April 2011.