Tuesday, 26 March 2013 13:40

Great Expectations

What is it about Great Expectations (1861) that makes it seem indispensable? Can it be its hero, Pip’s, search for a liveable identity? The small, terrified, often bullied child gets a glimpse of ‘the quality’ albeit in desuetude, becomes dissatisfied with being a blacksmith, receives the eponymous expectations, and tries to become a gentleman before settling for a more modest role and coming to a truer sense of what matters about human beings. Is it also a question of marvelling at how lives can be manipulated? When the child Pip, out of terror rather than altruism, helps a runaway convict on the Kentish marshes, his life is upheaved by Magwitch’s gratitude. The child Estella, whose origin is unknown until late in the book, is raised by the embittered, jilted Miss Havisham to wreak revenge on the male sex. Structurally and thematically, this may be Dickens’s most potent work, with everything seeming to bear on these central concerns.

The record of film versions – there are nearly twenty on screens large and small – suggests that its hold on audiences shows no sign of slackening. In fact, its very name has provided the title for umpteen episodes of television series. People know the title as they know that Oliver Twist ‘asked for more’, even if they don’t know the novel. Among the new film’s predecessors, the shadow of David Lean’s 1946 version has loomed large; it is claimed that he made a classic film from a classic novel. But its prestige has tended to make critics reluctant to concede virtues in subsequent adaptations, such as the 1998 film that relocates the action to contemporary Manhattan or the excellent 1999 miniseries with Charlotte Rampling as a younger than usual Miss Havisham.

Now, barely a year after the last miniseries, comes Mike Newell’s handsome, compelling version of Great Expectations. Newell’s eclectic filmography includes Dance with a Stranger (1985), the harsh story of Ruth Ellis; the sleekly witty romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994); a Harry Potter entry (2005); and a mixed bag of US titles. He is not the first director one would associate with Dickens: he is versatile enough but maybe lacking the strongly personal style that might make something radically new of so individual a novelist as Dickens. He does not make the daring choices that recent adaptations of Wuthering Heights (2012) and Anna Karenina (2013) have made. If his film is less inventive than those, it is persistently intelligent and on several key occasions surprisingly moving.

GreatExpectationsHelena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham and Jeremy Irvine as Pip in Great Expectations

 

Unlike in, say, the Lean version, in Newell’s film it is not the actors who seem most distinctive, but some of the other collaborators. The opening scene of grey, shifting fog, giving way to a soft full moon, with the boy Pip running through the marshlands to the graveyard by the church, past grazing cows, has a perfect bleak look that instils confidence from the start in cinematographer John Mathieson’s grasp of his material. And this is borne out again and again in the subtly dim lighting of Miss Havisham’s crumbling mansion and the crowded London streets and the failed rescue of Magwitch on the river. Then there is a new kind of serenity in the parklands where Pip and Estella are walking at the end. But it is not just the photography that so creates a palpable sense of place and time. Jim Clay’s superb production design – whether it is the Gargery kitchen, the interior of a panelled gentlemen’s club, or any of the other skilfully realised settings – and Beatrix Pasztor’s costumes, which so vividly key us in to character (whether Miss Havisham’s bridal tatters or the gowns that launch Estella into society), are major contributions.

As to the actors, Jeremy Irvine is an agreeable but rather bland Pip, who looks and sounds more suited to a modern romantic comedy, whereas Holliday Grainger is wholly convincing as Estella, whose ‘heart’ has been educated out of her but who retains awareness of this. Helena Bonham Carter, given a great build-up by some cunningly contrived editing, suggests the cruelty of Miss Havisham’s project for Estella, and quite movingly comes to realise what she has done. Ralph Fiennes is a realistically threatening Magwitch, truly alarming but also affecting when explaining what Pip has meant to him and the loss of his own child.

Sometimes the film’s pace, often effective in holding attention, means that some key incidents need more narrative time to make their importance and the connections between them clear. However, the use of some strangely lit flashback moments seemed a wholly appropriate way for the screen to provide information that the novel gives in a long spoken account, while Dickens’s own voice resonates in the dialogue. If never greatly daring, the film certainly doesn’t dishonour its great antecedent.

Great Expectations (M), directed by Mike Newell, based on the novel by Charles Dickens. 128 minutes. Released in Australia on 7 March.

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Tuesday, 25 September 2012 06:02

Wuthering Heights

Those Brontës. If they’d only had a decent agent with foresight, they could have escaped that dank parsonage on the gloomy moors of windswept Yorkshire and set up on the French Riviera in comfort. Since 1910 there have been at least forty film or television versions of Jane Eyre, most recently in 2011. Now it is Emily’s turn for the latest (seventeenth) go at Wuthering Heights (1847), that extraordinary work sui generis that so memorably sites wild Gothic strangeness in a solidly realised world of landscapes both benign and forbidding.

Whereas Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre caught brilliantly the polemic at the heart of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, the new Wuthering Heights understands fully that the passionate intensity between Heathcliff and Cathy grows in a tough, beautiful physical world in which matters of property and inheritance, of opportunism and vengeance, also make claims on our attention. The most famous film version, directed by William Wyler in 1939 and starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, has a spruced-up look, as though neither stars nor set design could be allowed to look quite as mucky as was, in realist terms, likely to be the case.

Andrea Arnold, director of the new film, was unlikely to be seduced by glossy possibilities. A striking new talent in recent British cinema, she cast a judicious eye on the shabby edges of modern life in Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009). If hers is not the first name one would expect to find on the credits of Wuthering Heights, it is certainly one to give promise of a long, hard look at a revered classic. And that is what we get.

The passion at the heart of Brontë’s novel is evoked here with such violence that the film can never be mistaken for ‘a beautiful love story’. On Penistone Crags, where the young Heathcliff and Cathy make unspoken declaration of their feelings for each other, a fierce gale whistles around them, instinct with the threat of the natural world of which their passion is another manifestation. They smear each other with mud, behaving as the wayward children they still are. The passion is not just a matter of persuasive visual imagery; Arnold and her co-screenwriter, Olivia Hetreed, have retained some of the soaring rhetoric of the original, as when Cathy claims of her love for Heathcliff, ‘He’s more myself than I am.’ Arnold has sought – or, at any rate, found – her own ways of striking at the central paradox of a love so poetically conceived finding its home in a world so palpably realist.

Wuthering_HeightsYoung Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) and young Cathy (Shannon Beer)

Not that Arnold has set out to make a slavishly reverent adaptation. In at least three crucial ways she has broken with the novel’s procedures. First, we are brought face to face with the reality of both passion and place without their being filtered through Brontë’s two narrators: the superficial tenant Lockwood and housekeeper Nelly Dean. (A clever touch of Brontë’s to have given Nelly access to Mr Linton’s library so that she could acquire Standard English; imagine reading it in the dialect of the canting old servant Joseph.) What the film loses in commentary it gains in immediacy. Second, Arnold, like Wyler, has chosen not to take on board the second generation of the Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange families. As Heathcliff has said, ‘I have almost found my heaven.’ The film eschews the reassurances of family continuities, except for the largely mute appearances of little Hareton Earnshaw, a child who scarcely knows what is happening.

But the third departure is perhaps the most striking. Arnold has given us a black Heathcliff, played by Solomon Glave when he is first brought to Wuthering Heights by Mr Earnshaw, and very powerfully, in his first screen role, by James Howson as an adult. Making Heathcliff black accentuates his outsider status in the household and in the more genteel purlieus of Thrushcross Grange. Possibly there is also a touch of historical verisimilitude at issue here. Liverpool, where Earnshaw finds the boy on the streets, had one of the oldest black communities in Europe, such children as Heathcliff in some cases being the human detritus of the slave trade.

Whatever Arnold had in mind, Glave and Howson have incarnated a genuine strangeness that is matched by Shannon Best and Kaya Scodelario as the young and older Cathy. Best has a wonderful look of spirited country girl’s ardour that seems to soften into something more conventional when the older Cathy (Scodelario) marries Edgar for his wealth and position, thus flying in the face of her own nature.

This new Wuthering Heights may not be as popular as the old Hollywood classic, but it could arguably be said to go more directly to the heart of Brontë’s dark vision.

 

Wuthering Heights (MA), written by Andrea Arnold and Olivia Hetreed, directed by Andrea Arnold, based on the book by Emily Brontë. 129 minutes. Released in Australia on 11 October.

 

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Monday, 23 April 2012 04:07

The Deep Blue Sea

By chance, two of the most famous 1950s plays are in the news again. John Osborne’s historic rant, Look Back in Anger (1956), has been successfully revived on Broadway, while Terence Rattigan’s emotionally taut piece, The Deep Blue Sea (1952), has been filmed by another Terence – Davies, that is. In their day, Osborne railed against the ‘porcelain plates [of] the well-set table of British theatre’(John Lahr in the New Yorker), his arrows directed at the likes of Noël Coward and Rattigan, who in their turn were less than excited by Osborne’s class-based invective. It’s now at least arguable that Rattigan has outlasted Osborne; he has clearly been more frequently revived on stage – and on film and television – than his vituperative contemporary. Who now, I wonder, would rather watch or listen to Look Back than The Winslow Boy?

One of the great women’s roles in twentieth-century British theatre is surely that of suicidally inclined Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea. First created in London by Peggy Ashcroft, she was succeeded by Googie Withers, who then played the role unforgettably in Melbourne in 1955, opposite husband John McCallum as Freddie, her emotionally stunted lover. In 1994, film director Karel Reisz guided Penelope Wilton through a stage production, subsequently recorded on television. Hester offers rewarding scope to an actress of intelligence and passion, and Davies has found another such in Rachel Weisz, who brings to the role a depth of pain that eluded Vivien Leigh in the 1955 film version.

Deep_Blue_Sea


In bringing this lacerating story of a messy relationship to the screen again, Davies has made his first fiction film since the comparably harrowing The House of Mirth (2000), and his finest since Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). The latter comes to mind here because of the images and prevailing atmosphere of postwar shabbiness in a Britain stumbling towards renewal, but people and their unequal passions don’t date, and this is a matter that Rattigan frequently returned to in plays such as The Browning Version (1948) and Separate Tables (1954). In The Deep Blue Sea he reputedly drew on a doomed homosexual relationship of his own.

The new film takes place within the course of one day. It opens with Hester’s attempted suicide, gas oozing into her shabby flat, and memories of her fateful meeting with Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) at the Sunningdale Golf Club while married to judge Sir William Collyer (an impeccable Simon Russell Beale). In her seemingly random recollections as she is losing consciousness, filmed in very fluid camera and editing moves, Davies, screenwriter as well as director, establishes economically the contrasts between Hester’s meetings with Freddie, with their moments of sexual abandon, and her chaste scenes with Collyer as they sit at table, flanking his formidable mother on one occasion.

Structurally, the film recalls the way The Iron Lady moved between Mrs Thatcher’s demented present and memories of a more potent past. Davies has trusted his collaborators, especially his three leading actors, but also his cinematographer and production and costume designers, to create Hester’s bleak present and the past in which her unequal marriage to Collyer and unequal affair with Freddie are brought vividly to life. There is a sequence of entwined naked limbs, filmed with sensuous elegance, which would have been unthinkable in the 1955 film. (It has even been suggested that a coupling of this sort would have been unlikely in Britain because of the unavailability of central heating.) The scenes outside the shabby flat where Hester and Freddie have been living together don’t come under the usual heading of ‘opening up’ when the filming of single-set plays is concerned, but are the result of Hester’s attempts to summon up those episodes in her life that have brought her to the point of turning on the gas.

For the most part, and as a by-product of these memory inserts, the film avoids the static quality of the play’s long dialogue exchanges. In fact, the play now seems curiously flat on the page as one duologue follows another. Because of the film’s greater mobility in time and space, the rare occasions when, say, Hester and Collyer or Hester and Freddie try to talk through their situation are accorded real prominence, and Davies allows his camera to stay unfussily on them. Two important additions to the play’s cast are those of Collyer’s frosty, patronising mother and Hester’s father, a benignly conventional vicar. Played by Barbara Jefford and Oliver Ford Davies, these two parents offer insights into the ways in which their offspring have been emotionally imprisoned, just as the experience of the war has left Freddie in a state of raffish and RAFish immaturity.

Sharply evoking place and period (London round 1950), this superbly acted film exerts the power to move even a calloused modern audience with its take on unrequited love.

The Deep Blue Sea (M), written by Terence Rattigan, directed by Terence Davies. 99 minutes. Released in Australia on 12 April.

 

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Posthumous Holmes

Brian McFarlane

 

The Narrative of John Smith
by Arthur Conan Doyle (read by Robert Lindsay)
British Library Board (Inbooks), $39.95 5 CDs, 270 minutes, 9780712351157

 

A century later, the Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes industry shows no signs of abating. In recent months alone, there have been Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk, a new Holmes adventure, and the big, dumb action movie Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows; a television series, Sherlock, set in the twenty-first century, appeared in 2010; and in 2005 Julian Barnes’s George and Arthur investigated the relationship between an unjustly accused solicitor, George Edalji, and Doyle who took up his cause.

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Tuesday, 27 September 2011 01:07

John Bell: On Shakespeare

Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask: Thou smilest and art still,
Out-topping knowledge.
(Matthew Arnold, ‘Shakespeare’)

When Arnold wrote his famous sonnet, he could have been anticipating John Bell’s book, which repeatedly asks provocative questions about the man and the work that have been his life’s inspiration – and arrives at much the same conclusion as Arnold. We don’t go to Shakespeare for mere knowledge, but for insight, challenge, and enrichment, and perhaps to help us know ourselves and others better. Further, as Bell says: ‘There is no worldwide conspiracy to keep Shakespeare alive. He survives because actors want to go on performing him and audiences want to listen.’ These sentences come from his second-last page, and the rest of the book helps us to understand why.

In his prefatory note, Bell announces that ‘It’s not a book for academics or theatre buffs.’ So, who is it for? He hopes that ‘it may encourage students and other interested readers to delve further into the complexities of Shakespeare in books weightier and worthier than this’. I think academics, theatre buffs, students, or that mythical beast ‘the general reader’ may all find things to interest them in this pot-pourri of responses to reading, thinking about, acting, directing, and viewing Shakespeare.

Academics and students may well find stimulating the reflections on particular plays, and Bell goes through virtually the entire canon. He opens up some plays in fascinating ways that may not necessarily find agreement but may at least cause a bit of rethinking. I was taken by the account of Lear, having always felt that a bit more tact from Cordelia might have saved everyone a lot of unpleasantness. As Bell says, the whole love-test thing is ‘rigged’ as Lear was always going to give the favoured Cordelia ‘a third more opulent’ share of the kingdom, and we might feel some sympathy for Goneril and Regan,who are entirely aware of this. Possibly anyone who has had suddenly to provide hospitality for the unexpected arrival of a hundred unruly knights and a cantankerous father would agree. Ultimately, though, what Bell responds to in the play is ‘the tearing apart of family, of community, of country, due to arrogance, moral blindness, emotional deadness and the abuse of authority’.

There are also astute comments on many of the other plays, including his diagnosis of Iago’s jealousy and Othello’s ‘great weakness’, which he claims is ‘not jealousy but pride’. He finds less interest in Henry VIII because, he feels, this was history too recent for safe and serious appraisal, but he captures the splendours and specificities of the Henry IV plays evocatively when he writes of them: ‘A whole nation is set before us like a vast Breughel landscape, so populous, so detailed.’ And he bears this contention out in a warm appreciation of the range of characters who people this incomparable pair of plays – from Falstaff to the fleeting reference to the late Robin Ostler, who ‘never joyed since the price of oats rose’.

As a rule, Bell is less persuasive on the comedies. All right, I’m prejudiced because I greatly disliked the Bell Shakespeare production of Twelfth Night in which the play seemed ransacked for, and was played with, vulgarities of every hue. Bell should have asked his producer to heed his (Bell’s) warning about this play, that ‘subtle shades can be obliterated by boisterous horseplay’. And Bell’s apologia for the gender nastiness of The Taming of the Shrew is fragile (did making Petruchio ‘a footloose Vietnam vet’ really help?). However, there are real insights, from the points of view both of actor and director, into the workings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice. In regard to the latter, Bell carefully examines the claims of anti-Semitism, balancing these against the play’s ‘eloquent rebuttal of Christian bigotry’. Writing of The Dream, he aptly recalls how Peter Brook’s production, set in ‘a stark white box’, showed that ‘real theatrical magic could be created by words and by actors rather than by scenic artists and lighting effects’.

However, there is a lot more going on in this book than just exploring the plays’ complexities of meaning, though there is plenty of that worth the attention of academics, actors, students, or anyone with an interest in the plays, whether on page or stage. Those on either side of the footlights who want to come to terms with, say, the Roman plays may benefit from thinking about their republican sentiments in the context of the intensely monarchical Britain. There is, too, ongoing fascination in how actors prepare themselves to tackle demanding roles such as Prospero, so that it is not just a matter of standing around and declaiming beautiful verse. For Prospero it is, rather, a matter of finding that this ‘humanist scholar has to learn about forgiveness, tolerance’ and so on, and that this is ‘a mighty struggle for him, he is so locked in the role of magus’ – and that all this is ‘written into the text’.

John-Bell-Peter-Carroll
John Bell as Lear with Peter Carroll as the Fool, King Lear (2010)

Bell’s On Shakespeare is a very ambitious undertaking. Its concerns go well beyond the details of the plays, to include, for instance, some account of Bell’s own career – how he became besotted with Shakespeare, his experiences with Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company, setting up his own company, how he went about directing and acting in this or that play. As well, he aims to give a sense of Shakespeare’s age. This involves imagining the first night of Hamlet with ‘Dick’ Burbage in the title role, evoking Shakespeare’s life in Stratford and in the Globe-centred London, his theatrical and social aspirations, and even giving a slightly touristy view of these hallowed sites. The mingling of the personal and the historical in Bell’s account is in general smoothly enough managed, and certainly, as he makes clear at the outset, he was never going to be committed to giving readers a purely scholarly account of the oeuvre.

There are a good many beguiling treats to be had from this miscellany. For example, there is something endearing about the way Bell simply quotes in full, from Troilus and Cressida, his favourite Shakespearean speech. For another, he writes about the rarely performed Timon of Athens with a verve that makes me feel I need to reread, for the first time in many decades, this ‘simple parable about a rich playboy who flings around his money’. He fossicks away at the Sonnets, not only to pursue the mildly vexed issue of their inspiration, but also to locate the drama Shakespeare enacted in this most rigid poetic form. Best of all, there are several ‘interviews’ with Shakespeare’s contemporaries that are done with real originality and a command of tone that vivifies these wittily imagined personages. The slightly fraught relationship with Ben Jonson is especially diverting, as it emerges here; the two old-codger publishers swigging mulled wine are an engaging comic invention.

The book ends with a brief chronicling of the Bell Shakespeare company and John Bell’s own aims as producer (other producers, such as Steven Berkoff, make guest appearances) and reflections on why Shakespeare is still Number One. This is not a matter of mere ‘relevance’, but ‘we keep coming back because there is so much that is worth grappling with’. I can’t agree with Bell at every turn, but there is much in his book that is worth grappling with.

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Monday, 23 May 2011 05:37

Cloudstreet

Whereas the miniseries, most often based on revered literary texts, has been a staple of British television for fifty years, I could count on the fingers of a dismembered hand its Australian counterparts. In fact, the miniseries in general, as distinct from serials that run for a longer or shorter period, seems never to have been as common here, though The Dismissal (1983) remains an Australian small-screen highlight. (As for those derived from novels, the count is even sparser.)

However, last year delivered the goods in Rake, and2011 may just be about to lift the miniseries score significantly: we have had the excellent Paper Giants, ostensibly about the founding of Cleo magazine, but in fact an incisive study of changing cultural mores; we are promised a lavishly cast version of Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap; and now comes Cloudstreet. For my money, this may be the most adventurous miniseries ever made here.

Since it was published in 1995, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet has rightly won a key, or even the dreaded ‘iconic’, place in the annals of Australian fiction, including first place in ABR’s Favourite Australian Novel poll, in 2010. In its ambition and its scope, Cloudstreet aspires to an epic quality, a tract of time and place put before us for our contemplation, as well as for the more customary novelistic pleasure of emotional involvement. It is also intensely poetic in its insights into how people relate to time and place.

At its heart are two families on their uppers, each with a major accident in its past, each of which will have an offspring that wants to break away from the family cycle. Otherwise, the families have little in common when their fates bring them to live in a rundown house on the Swan River, near to Perth, in the decades after World War II. The house, inherited by the Pickles family and tenanted by the Lambs, assumes a presence in the novel, one that overrides the two disparate lifestyles practised by the families that share its roof – and yard. Further, the narrating voice goes beyond mere omniscient functionality, offering the reader strange and evocative perspectives on the lives of these families – and, indeed, on the very nature of family and of life itself.

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So, what is television to make of this? The short answer is, a great deal. For more than a decade there were attempts to film Cloudstreet, from a screenplay by Ella Fontana.  Now, in the more expansive format of a six-hour miniseries, Winton himself has worked with Fontana to produce a script that preserves the novel’s overall narrative trajectory, while also making something essentially new. Various characters, including some of the children of each family, are reduced to shadowy figures; some events are telescoped in the interests of dramatic impact; the time frame of the novel’s twenty years has been reduced to ten, and there is less sense of ‘size’ as a result. The miniseries concentrates more fixedly on the house, the damaged boy, Fish Lamb, and the parallels, whether for contrast or comparison, between the two fathers, the two children who leave the nest (though ‘eyrie’, in some ways, evokes it more vividly), and, most poignantly, the two mothers.

Fish Lamb Jumps 1A still from Cloudstreet

 

This still gives it plenty to work on, and director Matthew Saville, with much notable television and the taut, multi-plotted feature Noise (2007) behind him, and with a slew of gifted collaborators, has made a television event that is both memorable and rare. By ‘rare’ I mean especially that this is a miniseries in which ‘story’ isn’t everything. Those whose preferred television tipple is Friday Night Crime may find it too reflective for their taste. I don’t suggest that it is short of plot: the two families still converge on the house, the slovenly one offset against the more industrious one, though that makes it sound schematic, which it is not; Quick Lamb heads for the outback and Rose Pickles for the city before both return to set up with each other; and so on. What I mean is that here is television quite daringly espousing the poetic, in terms both visual (the house itself in its shabby grandeur) and verbal (Ron Haddrick’s voice-over, which inducts us into places beyond what meets the eye).

Without a vestige of sentimentality, the miniseries becomes a study in reconciliation. Rose and Quick, married in the nick of time before their baby is born, unite the unlikely pair of families, and Saville has chosen to end on this note rather than with the book’s image of the two mothers together in the garden. The last line is given to the adult whom Fish never fully becomes, but for me the moment that lingers is that in which, at the wedding celebration, the unbending Oriel Lamb (Kerry Fox) takes sluttish Dolly Pickles (Essie Davis) to dance. If this beautiful impulse of reaching out doesn’t move you, you may not be a very nice person.

Cloudstreet, directed by Matthew Saville. 110 minutes. Screening from 22 May 2011 on Showcase and Showcase 2.

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    Whereas the miniseries, most often based on revered literary texts, has been a staple of British television for fifty years, I could count on the fingers of a dismembered hand its Australian counterparts. In fact, the miniseries in general, as distinct from serials that run for a longer or shorter ...

Thursday, 21 April 2011 02:14

The Tempest

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.

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