sat 13/07/2024

Tempest | reviews, news & interviews



Helen Mirren is a beguiling Prospera in a film version that might have stayed indoors

Helen Mirren as Prospera: 'Not quite deranged enough to evoke someone obsessed by magic'

Shakespeare’s The Tempest is apparently a gift for the big screen. It's full of tricks, illusions, two half-humans and of course kicks off with a stonker of a storm: any film-maker might, particularly in this hi-tech epoch, give his or her eye teeth to unleash wildest imaginings on this magical text for grabbiest effect. “The isle is full of noises,/ Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not”, says Caliban.

Julie Taymor’s new adaptation is full of digital delights, built mainly around Ben Whishaw as Ariel - and, with Helen Mirren as Prospero, it's also responsible for one of the quirkier takes in recent years on this famous romance.

Talk ahead of the film has indeed been of “gender-bending”, so expectations of something extreme might be high. In fact, Mirren is impressively staid as the island magus, once we’ve recovered at the film’s start from her histrionic roar - throwing her adversaries’ approaching ship into a tornado spin - and begins speaking all the great lines that follow with polished gravitas.

However, I don’t know if it’s DCI Tennison or Her Majesty interfering, but Dame Helen, beautiful with her blond boy’s cut, just isn’t quite deranged or distracted enough to evoke someone obsessed by books and magic (being surrounded in her lair by bubbling glass phials makes one think bathetically of Harry Potter) or a hyper-clever Milanese aristocrat embracing savage self-exile. She’s somehow too nice; Prospero isn’t, particularly, but maybe that’s Taymor’s point. The back story, shown in smoky flashback, also asks us to believe, along with other textual tweaks early on, that a 17th-century woman can rule a duchy and be a scholar of the occult.

Quibbles. Mirren (pictured above) is a beguiling Prospera in this femaled, not feminist, Tempest. Taymor has skilfully replaced the patriarchal dynamic of the original - magician as disciplinarian martinet - with a narrative of motherliness: Prospera really feels and fears for Miranda, played charmingly by 27-year-old Felicity Jones (who could, correctly, be 15), when encountering lithe young buck Ferdinand, Reeve Carney (who, by contrast, looks too geeky to have loved “full many a lady… for several virtues”…). Prospera’s relationship with a superimposed Ariel - Whishaw was unavailable for on-set work in Hawaii - is tender, almost erotic, though his naked, white, genital-free sprite (he sometimes sprouts breasts) zooms around over rock and wave like a jet-propelled Tinkerbell.

Caliban, played by a magnificently physical Djimon Hounsou (pictured below with Mirren and Felicity Jones), caked in scales and with one brown eye and one blue, screeches incomprehensibly in his first scenes, though has calmed down by the time he issues, movingly, the great “noises” speech (Act III, scene 2) in what resembles a prickly-pear forest. Alfred Molina gives us a dependably rotund, blubbery drunk Stephano, while Russell Brand as Trinculo is, equally dependably, Russell Brand, “v”ing his “th”s and his losing his “g” endings as he always irritatingly does (also reminiscent of another stand-up as a Shakespeare clown - they can never do it - some years ago when Sean Hughes was a dreadful Touchstone in David Lan’s As You Like It).

helen-mirren-felicity-jones-djimon-hounsouThe four shipwrecked Italians are good, Tom Conti unrecognisably so as the old, perplexed Gonzalo, Alan Cumming watchful and precise as the corruptible Sebastian - though the doublets of all four drip, disconcertingly, with un-17th-century zips. As for the biggest “but” - there was always one coming...

Taymor struggled to get permission to film on the privately owned Lana’i and I just wonder whether the effort was worth it. Disney Studios' notes point out that it is very wild, volcanic and lunar, but it’s hard not to think, in the seaside scenes, of north Cornwall. The Tempest was written specifically for indoors: its oneiric poetry should and can do the transporting, not camera, island authenticity or, if on stage, an overbusy set.

Derek Jarman understood this precisely in his 1979 chuntering Heathcote Williams-sexy Toyah Wilcox film. It was dark, dressy, deeply strange - and set, claustrophobically, poetically, inside. Here, the play’s been taken outside and kind of left there. The key but difficult masque parade (Act IV, scene 1), whose vanishing precipitates "Our revels now are ended", becomes a very brief digital display in the sky which the Planetarium surely does better. Even in the scene of Prospera’s spell renunciation and capture of her usurping foes, a ring of fire on sand, looks like… a ring of fire on sand. The "set me free" epilogue, finally, is done as a song over the credits, books sinking through water: ingenious, perhaps, but dramatically a cop-out.

Taymor’s Tempest is faithful, narratively engaging and attractively new because of Mirren in the lead. But also, because it tries hard to be entertainingly "real", it remains strangely inert.

Watch the trailer for The Tempest

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