The Tempest, 2011

dir. Julie Taymor

 

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This film BOMBED. Yep, after months of great expectation, following the phenomenal success of Titus, the truth that started to emerge from critics was pretty devastating. No-one rated it highly. No-one said it was pure magic. It didn't even make it to the big screen, just one-off showings at local cinemas. And then Claudia Winkleman and that sly bastard who's actually a pretty good critic tore it to shreds on Film 2011. Buy why? How??! The cast is AMAZING! The special effects are breath-taking!!! The movie visually corresponded to the imagery we have all imagined for centuries, that is to say, the island, the forests, the rivers, the brooks, the caves, Prospero's cell, Ariel, the tempest itself, it was all spot on! Even Caliban was the perfect Caliban! Russell was hilarious! Miranda was beautiful and oh so tender! The King & co. were perfectly fine. Most important of all, the Shakespeare was spoken well! These are all seasoned veterans of Shakespeare and they took their time to make the meanings of the lines clear and everything seemed to be in good order... so how on earth is it so dull??!! It is truly the most splendid film I have ever seen that did so little to get me going. The credits rolled and I was just like 'Huh. I wanted to enjoy it but this...' I was very unsettled; I thought, how? How did this happen? So off I went to crack the case and understand what on earth went wrong...

 

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I read dozens of reviews and hundreds of people's comments and you know something? None of them agreed on jack sh**. Sure, they all had their little criticisms, their little dislikes but there was no single, overwhelming problem identified. Professional critics tried all sorts of angles; the most common criticism being the 'over-use' of special effects which 'stifled' the great actors' and actresses' performances. That is a poor, poor thing to pick on; there can be no question that the special effects were visually gratifying, original, imaginative, thoroughly-entertaining and entirely appropriate. The critics who did jump on that bandwagon were just pretenders who just plain didn't enjoy the film that much (just like me) but just couldn't explain why (just like me) and didn't want to blame it on the Shakespeare (just like me), so they went straight to the only other particularly unusual aspect that stood out; the special effects. Look, the special effects were astonishing, okay? And don't say they 'got in the way' of the Shakespeare, because that is just plain not true; the actors got all the time they needed to speak their lines and the cinematography was very well thought out, so that their speech never got dull. No, despite it's lack of success, it was not the amazing special effects that are to blame. So what then? It wasn't until a couple of months later, when I was watching another film, when it suddenly clicked for me...

 

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Helen Mirren was a mistake. It's not that she is not an incredible actress of the highest standard and ability. It's not that a woman should never play that part. Swapping genders around in Shakespeare is all part of the fun! But for the time being, for this particular role, that remains to be proven; for it was the lack of Prospero in the film that made it so unsatisfying. Prospero! Prospero, Prospero, Prospero, you old, wise, old, lovable, old, witty, old, harsh, old, fantastic old man! Where were you?? Helen Mirren was too young, too gentle, too darn female to play that role. Oh sure, she did a pretty good job and it was perfectly acceptable; but when asking the question 'why was it so unsatisfying?' it because the story lacked the masculinity of it's central protagonist. Yes, yes, I know, it was a really clever idea to cast Prospero as a woman and explore the whole concept from a different angle but mark my words; the more of value you wish to attribute to the success of casting a woman as Prospero, so too, the more you must concede a change has occurred at all. This is the thing; Prospero is an old, old man and the very reason why The Tempest is so vivid, so marvellous and special is not because of the basic, uneventful storyline, it is not because of typically magical Shakespearean lines, it is not even the openly used magic which sets this play apart from the others; no, it is because of the intrigue that old, senile magus generates. It all rests on his weary shoulders; this grandfather to us all. Just as it is the darkness of The Joker which made The Dark Knight so exciting, just as it is Detective Harris' relentless hoodness which makes Training Day so entertaining, just as it is Tony Montana's fearlessness which makes Scarface so engaging, it is the old, nostalgic, paternal sense of wisdom and ingenuity about Prospero which really sets The Tempest apart. It is my belief, now, that the translation of his being into the female counterpart was a futile effort; I am not saying men are better than women, only that they are different in some ways. Different does not mean better or worse. Just different. Look at Helen Mirren in this film; what does she do to change the character? Nothing! She can't, the lines are already written and they are so deeply routed in a father's nature that in the end, if there is anything to be remarked about her sexuality, it is that she comes across as a woman who wants to be a man. A mother does not defend a threat to her daughter in the same manner a father does. A father does not hold a baby to his breast in the same way a mother does. A mother does not find suitors for her daughter the same way a father does. A father does not raise a child the same way a mother does. Prospera does not feature in The Tempest the same way Prospero does. And there lies the only error, the only thing awry which I can actually detect; everything else is right on point. And it makes sense too; it's the one criticism that professional critics would be afraid to admit, especially if they're not Shakespeare nuts like me. Hec, they probably didn't even realise it in the first place. But I see no place else to attribute the plain dissatisfaction this film brings. If you have another idea about why it's such a flop, please e-mail me humphrey@44calibreshakespeare.com and I will be glad to consider your point of view. Otherwise, I think I am the only reviewer online brave enough to state what I suspect is the only thing - the only thing which can be! - responsible for this film's failure...


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