The Tempest (2010)
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The Tempest (2010)

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There is something exceptionally special about the plays of William Shakespeare. Of all the authors who have contributed to the literary geist of humanity his works are among the most interpreted stories in history. The primary reason for has many facets but two rise above the rest. First his principle demographic ranged from the royal elite to the common throng. Second the themes he incorporated into his stories were universal. Not only could they reach the wide gamut of his contemporaries but the have demonstrated an endurance that has gone on unabated for over five centuries. A love story that featured a pair of love struck elite teenagers could be easily adapted to musical featuring street gangs in New York City. This adaptability of the Bard’s play is so well known and scholastically acknowledged that it has filtered down to television sit-coms. The film under consideration here is such a re-imagining of one of Shakespeare’s last plays, ‘The Tempest’. This version, released to theaters in 2010 is a feminized slant of a play that examines the core of dark emotions that resides in the hearts of men. Like many of his plays it is a tale of a power struggle that in this case relies on a supernatural foundation. A female vantage point is not even close to being the most unusual variation of this play. In 1956 Shakespeare’s plat took off to the depths of outer space in a science fiction twist; the cult classic ‘Forbidden Planet’. If you had any doubts whatsoever about the universality of his works that should put them to rest. In the version considered here the approach is more traditional. It is also only fitting since in Shakespeare’s day acting was not considered a suitable activity for women so men would don a wig and dress and perform in drag. To have a part traditionally portrayed by a man interpreted through the perception of a woman is an interesting variation of cross gender casting common in this form of theater. It is important to keep in mind that the more drastic deviations from the conventional format are very much a form of experimentation. As such the potential to fall short of expectations is considerably magnified. In this instance the lofty goals were not met but it was an honest attempt at another interpretation of this classic story.

In the original incarnation of the tale the pivotal character is Prospero, receiving a gender reassignment Prospera (Helen Mirren). In keeping with the female vantage point her social rank was altered from Grand Duke of Milan to the feminine equivalent of Duchess. The classic format of the story is retained with Prospera betrayed by her usurper brother, Antonio (Chris Cooper). In order to prevent retribution Prospera and her four year old daughter Miranda (played as an adult by Felicity Jones), are cast adrift in a small boat to die. Miraculously, they survive and are tossed up on the shores of an uncharted island. This tiny speck of land has only s single inhabitant, the monstrous Caliban (Djimon Hounsou). The deposed Duchess enslaves the creature and begins to plot her revenge. Twelve years pass and things begin to fall in place. The King of Naples, Alonso (David Strathairn) who has just completed negotiations for the politically prudent marriage of his daughter to the crown prince of Tunisia. Alonso is accompanied by his son Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) and Antonio, much to the sinister delight of Prospera. The royal ship is caught in a tempest that brings its passengers to the isle. What ensues is a farce that only works in the context of a Shakespearian play. Miranda falls in love with Ferdinand who reciprocates the feeling. His butler Stephano (Alfred Molina) forms an alliance with the family Jester Trinculo (Russell Brand) to bring down the sorceress, Prospera. To achieve this goal Stephano and Trinculo enlist the aid of the bitterly resentful Caliban.

There is no mystery as to the feminine twist given to this production. The screenplay was adapted and the film directed by Julie Taymor, one of the more notable women in a craft long dominated by men. She received an Academy Award nomination for her direction of another film with strong female characters, ‘Frida’ in 2002. She is also no stranger to Shakespearian adaptations having directed Sir Anthony Hopkins in ‘Titus’, a re-imagining of ‘Titus Andronicus’. Ms Tatmor took her considerable talent for adaptations focusing them on more contemporary material weaving a story around the catalog of Beatles songs in ‘Across the Universe’. While this film was largely under appreciated by fans and critics it did receive a nomination for Best Achievement in Costume Design. One thing that binds together the works of Ms Taymor is her remarkable eye for crafting a visually fascinating film. The look of here films is unworldly, pulling the audience into another realm of possibilities. She is also in a position to attract a significantly impressive cast. Chief among them here is casting Dame Helen Mirren in a role traditionally dominated by men. It takes one of the world’s strongest leading women in the history of acting to take on such a challenge. This is especially important since her performance as a vindictive sorceress has to ground a production inherently dependent on the supernatural.

The rest of the casting demonstrates an eclectic flair that would have greatly amused the Bard. Alan Cumming as Alonso's brother is inspired although the material does loses some in the adaptation. Alfred Molina is always interesting to watch but as Stephano he reminds the audience he can act without a few mechanical arms. Perhaps the most intriguing bit of casting is Brand as the jester. After building his career on playing stoned idiots Brand takes on one of the most difficult roles of his career. The fool in the Shakespearian context is the character to relate exposition and provide moral judgment. Thinly cloaked by humor the jester was the one man who could speak the unvarnished truth to a king. Brand does surprisingly well in this capacity proving in every way he earned his place in such an illustrious cast. Unfortunately as is the case with many experiments all the greatness brought to play here fails to properly gel. In a form of anti-synergism the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Posted 09/20/11

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