The Tempest: The Play, The Film and Some Food for Thought

3 Jun

The Play

The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, is arguably not his best work, although it does provide some personal perspective on his feelings of isolation as he approached his impending retirement (and the end of his life). Prospero uses magic to exact revenge on his former shipmates, instead of focusing on how to get home; this is very odd indeed, especially since he waits twelve years on this deserted island to use any magic. It would seem that his biggest motive was not to escape the island; instead, he allows himself to become consumed with revenge, even at the expense of his daughter’s freedom and happiness. It is not until the end of the play that Prospero’s humanity and fragility are revealed and “all’s well that ends well”.

The Film

Julie Taymor presents The Tempest as never before; it was as if Shakespeare’s visions of ghosts, spirits and monsters could only be fully realized through the camera lens and wonderful cinematic effects encompassed in this film. The audience is swept into a new and exciting world of magic and wonder. Yet Taymor gently brings us back from this edge, reminding us of our own humanity in the well choreographed and touching sequences between characters. She chooses not to get lost in the digital effects of this film which was undoubtedly challenging, especially given their quality and creativity; this truly remains a human story.

The Adaptation

Taymor’s film adaptation of The Tempest was certainly postmodern in its scope and challenges the viewer to accept the new reality of our time – a time when women have the power and can manipulate their environments as never before. She uses powerful, film techniques including wide camera spanning, beautiful imagery and wonderfully realized CGI to enhance the isolationist themes and bring Prospero and Shakespeare’s magical creatures to life. As the audience encounters this new Prospero – now called Prospera (a short-haired woman, no less) – they are confronted with their own biases regarding women in lead roles and the darker side of a woman’s nature. Traditionally, this type of plotting, scheming and even violence is perpetrated by a male villain. Arguably, this new Prospera refuses to flirt with traditional notions of women and chooses not to soften the role; there are no tears, no sexual entendres. This movie asks the audience to consider women and even Shakespeare in a new light.

The Critics

There is a virtual treasure trove of research and critical reviews regarding this film. For perspective, it is important to consider both a British and an American review. This paragraph will contrast of Philip French from The Guardian and Martha Nochimson in Senses of Cinema. As is characteristic, the Brits did not appreciate this americanized, modernized presentation of The Bard, although French did enjoy Taymor’s earlier adaptation of Titus Andronicus. The American reviewer, Nochimson, is less critical of this film and far more singularly focused in her review; she emphasizes the importance of Helen Mirren’s wonderful performance and portrayal of Prospera, new perspectives on gender roles and directorial privilege.

Perhaps, one of the best critical responses was written by Benjamin Mercer from The Moving Image who contended that director Julie Taymor is mostly faithful to Shakespeare’s original work (except for the obvious gender swap from Prospero to Prospera) but tends to abuse CGI effects and visual artistry. He notes that “apart form the gender reversal, this film is as close to the original work as possible”, even opening with a ship caught in a very bad storm (Mercer, 2010). He does contend that Taymor overuses and even “abuses” CGI in this film but is mostly favorable throughout his critique.

The Critical Argument

Taymor skillfully alters this film to a postmodern perspective which goes far beyond feminism to a near “equality” of men and women; Taymor rejects the notion that women are expected to cry, become frustrated, rely on others for support and behave in a motherly fashion. Feminine power is an important element in this film in terms of Prospera and the directorial privilege of Taymor, herself. Violet Lucca noted that Taymor manipulated this play to suit her modernist impulses and feminist agenda (Lucca, 2010). The sheer act of transforming Prospero into Prospera was groundbreaking, as was the notion that Prospera was more than a powerful woman. She was a woman who did “not use her sex to achieve or maintain her power”, nor did she cry, act matronly or other expected womanly notions (Lucca, 2010). Radish notes that although many other directors have attempted to adapt The Tempest, none stand up to “the magic of Prospera” (Radish, 2010). Taymor goes well beyond the original play and powerful creates her own “tempest”, much like Prospero, himself. As consumers absorb this film, their experience travels beyond the initial shock of Prospero’s transformation to Prospera and ask themselves how much power a director should be afforded… and how much power women should be afforded. “[In] Taymor’’s hands Shakespeare’’s fundamentally masculine plot is revitalized with a deeply feminine sensibility” (Huttner, 2010). Even beyond this “revitalization” as termed by Huttner, Taymor brings a new voice for gender equality which surpasses feminism and asks society to examine the possibilities that might be ahead for women who refuse to cry, behave “motherly”, and rely on men to solve their problems.

Works Cited

French, Philip. The Tempest: Helen Mirren Review. The Guardian UK. 5 Mar 2011. Web. 2 June 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/mar/06/the-tempest-helen-mirren-review

Huttner, Jan L. The Tempest. Women Arts, 27 Dec. 2010. Web. 2 June 2015. http://www.womenarts.org/film-reviews/thetempest

Lucca, Violet. Review: The Tempest. Film Comment, Nov. 2010. Web. 2 June 2015. http://www.filmcomment.com/article/the-tempest

Mercer, Benjamin. The Tempest. Museum of the Moving Image: Reverse Shot, 6 Dec. 2010. Web. 2 June 2015. http://reverseshot.org/reviews/entry/1618/tempest

Nochimson, Martha P. The New York Film Festival Gets Its Gamut On. Senses of Cinema, Dec. 2010. Web. 2 June 2015. http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/festival-reports/the-new-york-film-festival-gets-its-gamut-on/

Radish, Christina. Director Julie Taymor Interview: The Tempest. Collider, 9 Dec. 2010. Web. 3 June 2015. http://collider.com/julie-taymor-interview-the-tempest

Shakespeare, William, and Frank Kermode. The Tempest. London: Methuen, 1964. Kindle Edition.

Taymor, Julie, Robert Chartoff, Lynn Hendee, Julia Taylor-Stanley, Jason K. Lau, Chris Cooper, Djimon Hounsou, Helen Mirren, Russell Brand, Reeve Carney, Tom Conti, Felicity Jones, Alan Cumming, Alfred Molina, David Strathairn, Ben Whishaw, Mark Friedberg, Stuart Dryburgh, Françoise Bonnot, and William Shakespeare. The Tempest. Montréal: Alliance Vivafilm, 2011.

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2 Responses to “The Tempest: The Play, The Film and Some Food for Thought”

  1. danaesmith416 June 9, 2015 at 3:52 am #

    I definitely agree with you on your remarks about feminism. It’s interesting to see how you mentioned Prospera’s short hair since there was definitely some androgyny throughout Taymor’s work, though Ariels’ character as well. I’m curious if you would agree with the idea that Prospera being feminine is to challenge the previous analyses that Prospero is a reflection of Shakespeare.

  2. Joseph E. Byrne June 16, 2015 at 4:45 pm #

    Natalie, this is a well-done and ambitious first attempt at the blog response post assignment. Your analysis of the play, the film, and the adaptation, are right on. Your online research links are good finds. However, you should try to avoid reviews, even those published at film journals, and look instead for scholarship about the play and the film that don’t evaluate the film as a reviewer would. (And I’d prefer it if you included the link with the description (rather than list it at the end of the blog entry). Your critical argument paragraph has the potential of being quite insightful and original, but its kind of unfocused at the moment. You argue that the film goes beyond feminism by showing the equality of gender: for some this is the very heart of feminism, so you need to provide a little more nuance here. If you’re arguing that the film transcends feminism by showing women acting like men, that’s a valid argument, but that’s not a transcendence, but rather an undermining, of feminism. But my main point is that you need to have a strong thesis statement before you try to develop it into a concise, well-supported argument. Otherwise, like your critical argument paragraph, the argument is unfocused and ineffective.

    10/10. Joseph Byrne. ENGL329B.

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