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The Tempest

by on March 4, 2011
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This commentary is part of an ongoing series discussing British films that you may have missed.

What would our world be like without Shakespeare? Theater, literature, the cinema, love, art, language — everything would differ from how it is today without his masterpiece plays and poems.

Director extraordinaire Julie Taymor tackles the Bard’s last masterpiece and adds her own (female) spin on the tale.

For those of you who missed out on studying “The Tempest” at school, here is a quick rundown of events, which are pretty much the same as Shakespeare’s original play. Prospera (Helen Mirren), the Sorceress/Duchess of Milan, is usurped by her brother Antonio. Sent off on a raft to die with her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones), they are stranded on a barren island whose only inhabitant is a beast whom Prospera names Caliban (Djimon Hounsou) after she enslaves him and takes over the island.

Twelve years later, the King of Naples, Alonso (David Strathairn), is sailing past the island with his two brothers, Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) and Antonio (Chris Cooper), on his way back to his kingdom after his daughter’s wedding. Seeing her chance for revenge, Prospera sets a tempest on the ship, causing it to wreck on the island and stranding the survivors. Comic mishaps and chaos ensues.

Two drunk servants, Trunculo (Russell Brand) and Stephano (Alfred Molina), add some comic relief and a few laughs to the film. Brand’s performance is limited to the same bad0boy hell-raiser routine he is known for with a bit of Shakespeare thrown in. For Molina, who was previously Dr Octopus and a Bishop in “The DaVinci Code” (2006), it is an interesting choice of role but his partnering with Brand, though unusual, somehow works in the end.

Taymor’s previous film directorial work includes another Shakespeare adaptation,”Titus” (1999), as well as 2002’s “Frida” and 2007’s “Across the Universe,” but her work in theater and opera has received the most recognition. On one hand, she is the first woman to have won a Tony Award for directing a musical (“The Lion King”). On the other, her current Broadway musical, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” has received a number of negative reviews even before it has officially opened.

Taymor already had an idea to change the gender of the sorcerer to female and approached Mirren while developing ideas for the film. Thanks to CGI, there are also some stunning visuals, which are perhaps more aggressive and raw than those in previous adaptations.

Although talented at directing for the stage, Taymor’s treatment of Shakespeare’s last masterpiece could have been better. The film has remained rather stunted considering what Baz Luhrmann accomplished with his modernist take on “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” (1996). With all the Shakespearean adaptations around, and the easy transferability and timeless of his material, ‘The Tempest’ could have been set at any time and in any place without detracting from the plot and well-established characters. Even director Gil Junger pulled off setting “The Taming of the Shrew” in an American high school in the teen hit “10 Things I Hate About You.”

Previous British film commentaries:

Graham Greene

Never Let Me Go

West Is West