From the director of "Frida" and "Across The Universe"!
‘Too light winning make the prize light,’ says Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. And the prize at stake here couldn’t be too much heavier, as American director Julie Taymor releases what she must hope is a film that does justice to the play, whilst still working as a piece of cinema. It’s a feat quite rarely achieved. Luckily, she is helped in no small part by the presence of Helen Mirren – who is here at the peak of her powers.
Taymor is no stranger to bringing the bard to life on celluloid: her maiden work as a feature film-maker was a 1999 version of Titus Andronicus (the well-received Titus). Nor is she a stranger to theatre, being the first woman to win a Tony award for Best Director for her work on the stage production of The Lion King.
Many great directors have turned to adapting Shakespeare’s material and often they try to put their own stamp on things; Orson Welles once famously set a 1930s stage production of Julius Caesar in fascist Italy, whilst Akira Kurosawa transported Macbeth to feudal Japan.
Taymor’s changes are more modest, but no less compelling. Here the central role of Prospero – an exiled Milanese Duke bent on using magic to restore his position – has been recast as the female Prospera, and played by Helen Mirren, adding a new dimension to the character.
It seems to make practical sense. After all, women of wealth and independent power were often accused of witchcraft in patriarchal societies, so why not have the magical Prospero as a female? In this new context her great wish, to see her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones) married back into position in Milan, becomes the story of a mother-daughter relationship. Aside from this, little has been changed. The setting, the language and the themes of the original play remain intact.
Quite aside from gender issues, Helen Mirren shows she is absolutely the right person for the role. When Shakespeare is done well, it bypasses the brain and goes straight to the heart. A skilled actor transcends the 17th century verse, and the universal, time-honoured themes of the play are again brought to the fore. Mirren is just such an actor, and arms her Prospera with a gravitas and intensity which is at the centre of all this film’s successes.
The aforementioned Felicity Jones (Brideshead Revisited, Chéri) also really shines. She’s got something – a certain light behind her eyes. When Prospera says of her, ‘She will outstrip any praise and leave it fast behind her,’ you believe it. Her love-stricken Miranda is almost the equal of Mirren’s Prospera, and the scenes between the two of them are the most gripping and emotional as a result.
“Among the supporting cast, David Strathairn and Chris Cooper are very watchable and naturalistic as the king, Alonso, and the Iago-like betrayer (and Prospera’s brother) Antonio, whilst Tom Conti is charming, good value as Gonzalo.
The question of whether this is a successful adaptation is tricky. Not every aspect works as intended, and the moments of computer effects, and some of the fast cutting, are alienating and a distraction. However, to give Taymor her due, she hasn’t just filmed a stage play.
This is a movie and it is a solidly entertaining one, vibrant and colourful, with excellent performances from Mirren and Jones, two British actresses at polar ends of their careers who ensure that time watching The Tempest is not wasted.
– Robert Beames, The Daily Telegraph