The Sweet Swan of Avon's Swan Song
Experts debate how much if at all Will of the World tweaked or collaborated after retirement on two of his King’s Men company’s plays, but The Tempest stands unquestioned as his final full effort. Following in time the comedies and the tragedies, it and three other late works are tragicomedies, potential pity-and-fear catharsis resolved into harmony through magic. It is natural to look to this popular first of the First Folio entries for, not only Shakespeare’s goodbye, but also for his legacy to the world in some mature judgment, opinion, advice.
Oddly, Julie Taymor first adapted for the screen the earliest of the tragedies, Titus Andronicus, not among the best of the plays but in her 1999 Titus a gruesome study in stubborn honor, revenge and violence, in their application to the present day. The prize-winning theater, opera and film director turns now to the reverse side of the thematic coin, as she underlined in a press Q&A two days prior to the New York Film Festival Gala Screening North American première of The Tempest.
The Bard as island ruler-cum-magician is, in the “Director, Producer & Writer’s” opinion, not the one to formulate the final word even though he/she acts upon it. Rather, it is spirit Ariel (Ben Whishaw) who, “were I human,” would forgive and heal. Helen Mirren as Prospera, wronged “right Duke of Milan,” will inspire more ink even if the filmmaker-cum-magician evinced a special fondness for the being of air, fire and wind who may steal the show. Androgynous, sometimes female-breasted and once a black female harpy with hell hounds, the winning wistful sprite was freed from the tree-spell of witch Sycorax and finally from service to Prospera, who acknowledges as hers but cannot free malevolent earth creature Caliban, “freckled whelp” of Sycorax.
African Djimon Hounsou plays “poisonous slave” Caliban, in a reflection of racial attitudes. His piebald skin is cracked brown mud or dry whitish earth, with the filmmaker calling attention to the “mooncalf’s” moonish light color circling his blue left eye.
Another assertion, one certain to be ignored by critics and audiences, was the denial of any political end in the substitution of sorceress for sorcerer, even though Taymor did acknowledge the essentially altered relationship, mother-virgin daughter as opposed to that of the father and his girl. Since directing an abridged live performance a quarter of a century ago, she had thought of bringing some form of this play to the screen, had regardless of gender admired Mirren’s work, and found that the English actress was interested, as well.
In a sense thus negating, or ignoring, male-female aside from innocent lovers Miranda (Felicity Jones) and Prince of Naples Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) -- and carnal Caliban -- the film also moves outside time, not of an age but for all time. Conforming easily to the classical unities of real time and of location -- filming was in the lava-and-scrub Hawaiian archipelago -- this screen version costumes its players in big-zippered vaguely motorcycle leather black and boots, as against the barefoot ingénue’s white and jester Trinculo’s (Russell Brand) gaudy stripes. Further, there are beer cans, stairs to odd corner doors atop stucco walls, and a semi-period and modern music score (by Elliot Goldenthal, the director’s husband).
Dreamy flashbacks give the background of usurpation of a throne, common in classical and Elizabethan theater, and of kindly Gonzalo’s (Tom Conti) thoughtfulness when mother and her infant are consigned to the sea by conniving Antonio (Chris Cooper). Washed to the island that has become their home, Prospera can at last confront the males who have hurt them, when her conjured tempest brings ashore King Alonso of Naples, his weak ambitious brother Sebastian (David Strathairn, Alan Cumming), and Antonio and Gonzalo; and, separate from them, Trinculo and drunk butler Stephano (Alfred Molina); and all on his own and soon to be thrall to love, Ferdinand.
The real dreaded “Devil’s Islands” of the Bermudas that were so wonderful a haven to a supposedly lost flagship, inspired the storm, wreck and island. But universal genius added everything to these bare bones. Masque, retirement speech, valediction, celebration of youth and of age, The Tempest is art and it is life. And now it is well served as cinema.
(Released by Touchstone Pictures and Miramax Films; rated "PG-13" by MPAA.)