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In Julie Taymor's version of 'The Tempest,' the main character is now a woman named Prospera. Going back to the 16th or 17th century, women practicing the magical arts of alchemy were often convicted of witchcraft. In Taymor's version, Prospera is usurped by her brother and sent off with her four-year daughter on a ship. She ends up on an island; it's a tabula rasa: no society, so the mother figure becomes a father figure to Miranda. This leads to the power struggle and balance between Caliban and Prospera; a struggle not about brawn, but about intellect. Written by
a crazy mix of the sublime, the visionary, the ridiculous and the dry/dull
The Tempest shows a filmmaker just itching to let loose her turbulent, big-splash-of-a-canvas vision of Shakespeare onto the screen, and the itch, for better or worse, is scratched sufficiently. This is a work that takes the delightfully and eerily dark take on the Bard that Taymor had before with Titus and suffuses it with the computer-generated surreal landscape of Across the Universe. Whether you can really dig into Taymor's films or not, to varying degrees for some, at the least it's hard to ignore her artistic prowess, of pushing the envelope of what might be acceptable or just what is "normal" and stretching the boundaries until you wonder what boundaries are even for in the first place - that is, you wonder so that people like Taymor or Terry Gilliam can break them, f*** them about, and give audiences something different with the acting and the mood of the piece while, oddly enough, staying true to at least the original spirit of the source material (Beatles, Frida Kahlo, the Bard).
This time her Tempest is almost nearing all over the place visually, but luckily it's anchored on one of Shakespeare's most underrated works ; it's one of my personal favorites from him actually, a work drenched in fantasy and ideas of late 16th century God's law and man in the high and low areas of class, meaning those who have it (i.e. explorers) and those that don't Djimon Hunsou's native character. The big change to anyone who has read the play is that Prospero is now Prospera, played with big emotions and big movements of poise and stamina by Helen Mirren. Oh she's a force to be reckoned with, as a star and as a character that she's playing, and she's a practitioner of alchemy. This might already be subversive - in that time and era women like that were branded witches right away, but here it's something that is not only encouraged but flaunted - but then comes more 'colorful' though normal elements of explorers, washed up on the shore, and part of the King's army of sorts (Alfred Molina and Chris Cooper make up some of this bunch).
There's also a love story thrown in the mix between the two youngest members of the cast, actors whom, I'm sorry to say, I don't remember their names as they are kind of forgettable due to the script and Taymor's direction of them. I get the sense that among the rest of what she has to work with this is either the thing she's least concerned with, or she botched this part of the film. I didn't really buy any of this young-love stuff, not the interactions or the dippy acting, or even (to go back to the source if it's that) Shakespeare's dialog. This and a few other odd moments, such as a few scenes with CGI (some of it, though not all of it, with Ben Whishaw's spirit character Ariel who is up there with the clouds and the smoke of air) do detract from the quality of the rest of the film.
The rest of it, I should add, is a lot of fun, and extraordinary to take in. Djimon Hunsou makes his Caliban a terrifying but oddly sympathetic character, one who will do bad things and can- the scar on his face says 'Don't mess with me, Whitey' pretty clearly, even if it's said in old-school Bard speak- but has also been damaged over time. There is some depth there that isn't with some of the other supporting characters, as interesting as they are and acted as well as they are. Among the lot that I've mentioned and who are really excellent in scenes that just need plenty of good close-ups and not too much music, Molina, Cooper and a magnetic David Straitharn take up really good chunks of screen time.
The oddity here is Russell Brand. Appearing as himself, or what I can figure is him"self" after playing a similar crazy rock-and-roll type in Judd Apatow comedies, here he's kind of the Fool character, Trinculo, and it was kind of delightfully bizarre to see him here doing his thing with such gusto and humor. Maybe that was Taymor's intention, as with Mirren as Prospera in a way, to give this work that is centuries old and dealing with the aspect of Post-Colonial theory a modern uplift and change up the nature of the characters without taking too much away from their roots. But more to the point, one of the strengths of the film and that Taymor connected with is that Prospera's an artist in her own right, only with magic, and may be reckless with her 'art' but will go to the lengths that she will do to her will. An extreme example, but I have to wonder if what Taymor is doing here, as all over the place and great and not-so-great as it is, in its broad strokes its a really raw expression of her own art through this flawed ex-member of royalty.
Taymor's work is an "acquired taste" as the euphemism goes, another way of saying "go in at your own risk". The wild takes on set-pieces like the ship-crash, the trippy-hallucinogenic visions of characters, and the eccentric acting turn the Tempest into a curious delight, but you need to expect something like that. This is Shakespeare for the Modern Museum of Art group, not for stuffy intellectuals looking for Masterpiece theater. For its faults, some of them crucial, its alive and throbbing and that's good to have in this Awards season.
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