And so to the latest remake of Shakespeare’s The Tempest… I have to say, it’s an odd one to review, as I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. On the one hand, Helen Mirren delivers a convincing and sincere performance as Prospera (yes, in this gender reversal version, Prospero is now a woman).
But on the other; it’s completely and unashamedly CGI heavy (you might say reliant) and features out-of-place performances from the likes of Russell Brand, who seems to be making quite a habit of only signing up to roles where he’s able to play a heightened version of himself.
For those not familiar with the play, you might want to brush up on the basic plot or you’ll quite possibly find yourself lost in places. In short: the story opens aboard a ship battling a storm – or tempest. On a nearby Island, we find out that Prospera, a magician, has caused the storm in revenge to his (or should I say ‘her’) brother Antonio and King Alonso, who both plotted against her and banished her to the sea to her apparent death. However, having survived with daughter Miranda, Prospera now rules the island that she was swept ashore to, and commands a spirit named Ariel to cause the storm. In the aftermath, Prospera’s daughter Miranda meets and falls in love with Ferdinand (the son of King Alsonso) while the men who were aboard the ship are eventually brought to Prospero. Rather than ultimately punishing them, Prospera decides to forgive and forget, and even vows to give up her magic. Yes, for Shakespeareans fond of the bloody and revengeful, The Tempest is one of the playwright’s more ‘all’s well that ends well’ type tales.
Directed by Julie Taymor (writer and director of Lion King the stage play and the brilliant Frida with Salma Hayek), the thing that baffles the most with The Tempest is whether Taymor intended it to be such a ‘mish-mash’ portrayal. For example, the CGI effects and modern hairstyles of the actors suggest a contemporary re-telling (perhaps similar to Baz Luhrmann’s Shakespeare In Love set in the present day), their clothes suggest pure fantasy, while their acting approaches are a mixture of the both.
For example, although the use of humour, wit and irony is common in Shakespeare, Brand plays in slapstick contemporary style, even managing to throw in his signature Willy Wonka style heel click. Mirren, David Strathairn, Alan Cumming and Chris Cooper all tend to play their roles more ‘straight’ and naturalistic, whereas Djimon Hounsou as the slave Caliban could have come straight from the stage with his booming Shakespearean theatrics. It all leaves you wondering if these strange juxtapositions were intentional, or whether Taymore left the actors to their own devices.
The role of Aerial played by Ben Whishaw is another strange one; some of his more surreal scenes are backed against guitar, giving the effect almost of a cheesy rock video. He plays the role rather timidly but this is used to effect, creating a layered relationship between himself and Mirren. Meanwhile, Felicity Jones (seen last year in Cemetery Junction) as Miranda, and Reeve Carney as Prince Ferdinand play out a rather sickly relationship which is quite sweet. And I have no doubt that Carney’s ‘pretty boy’ looks are set to catch the eye of directors in need of a new heartthrob.
With Taymor’s Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark (which Carney stars in) having recently been mauled by critics, there is no doubt The Tempest will also stand up to a fair bit of criticism. It is by no means the best film version of Shakespeare, but the use of CGI and Mirren’s potrayal ensure a version that is more interesting than a standard ‘stage-to-film’ retelling, if a little confusing.