"Taymor’s first mistake was that she tried to do something outlandish and unnecessary"
When taking on William Shakespeare, you need to make sure you do it properly. Considering Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time, his films have proved exceedingly difficult to adapt onto the big screen (Michael Hoffman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream springs to mind). In fact, aside from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, very few modernised adaptations of the Bard’s work have proved to be a success.
Therefore, the pressure was certainly on for Julie Taymor (Across the Universe) to adapt and modernise Shakespeare to good effect. And I certainly don’t feel that she succeeded.
The Tempest is, allegedly, Shakespeare’s final written play. It’s a story of isolation, contempt and fantasy. Prospera (Helen Mirren) played as a female despite the part originally being that of Prospero in the original play, and her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones) are stranded on an island, and Prospera, a magician, along with her loyal servant and spirit Ariel (Ben Whishaw), raises a tempest of epic proportions, causing her brother Antonio’s (Chris Cooper) ship to crash onto the island, and with the help of Ariel, dictates the stranded into many exasperating scenarios, splitting them up with her totalitarianism and bad will. Eventually, the characters all come together, building up to an almighty conclusion.
Taymor’s first mistake was that she tried to do something outlandish and unnecessary, changing the part of Prospero, to that of Prospera. Although the part is portrayed wonderfully by the infallible Mirren, as such a bold move, you really need to make it work – and give it some significance. However, it quite simply didn’t work. Changing the gender of Prospero took away an entire dimension to the story. One of the leading themes within the Tempest is that of Prospero losing his daughter, Miranda. The relationship between Prospero and Miranda, really highlighting the bond between a father and daughter, is an essential and integral plot-line to the story. However, in this adaptation, it was lacking from such a theme and the dynamics didn’t really work as a result. A mother losing a daughter to love and to a man certainly doesn’t have the same significance and magnitude that comes with a father losing his daughter to love; to a fellow man. It was just a filmmaker trying to do something different, without realising that by doing so, she was only shooting herself in the foot, making Shakespeare an even harder undertaking than it already is. Can you imagine if Hamlet was Hamletta? It just wouldn’t work.
The film is also lacking any real rhythm. Shakespeare’s work comes with a tempo and inflection that allows for it to glide and simply stream from line to line. Unlike this particular feature, Luhrmann’s adaptation of Romeo + Juliet did this wonderfully; making the film seem like one great poem, as the flow and rhythm of the film was, in my opinion, its greatest achievement. Also, what Luhrmann’s film succeeded in doing, where The Tempest has failed, is that its setting was made evident. It was modernised and set in the present, and its use of Shakespearian language used within modern surroundings was one of its great selling points, and one which worked tremendously well. However, the Tempest doesn’t really have an obvious setting, being almost lost in time, which doesn’t do the film any favours. You want to know when it’s set, in order to put the film and themes into the context of which they are intended.
Another disappointing aspect to the film was the performance of Russell Brand. When I go to the cinema to see Shakespeare, I want to see Shakespeare, I want to see actors performing as other people, which tends to be what acting generally is. However, Brand, playing the part of Trinculo, a jester stranded on the island, simply plays himself. Just as he does in everything else I have ever been unfortunate enough to have seen him in. He hasn’t changed his haircut, facial hair, dress sense, or persona. He floats around the screen, speaking and acting as he does in real life. I can see why he was cast - his poetic use of the English language, often used to common effect, makes him an obvious choice to play the part of a Shakespearian joker – however, it would have helped if he had disguised at least a small amount of his usual self and actually acted the part. Just a haircut would have done.
Despite being a magnificent play, this adaptation just isn’t very good. From the disappointing use of what is a fantastic script, and a compelling tale, it is instead replaced by a strange jittery and unnatural use of such language, often looking more like a 1980’s pop video than an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s finest works. I am all for filmmakers attempting such a feature, and I take my hat off to Taymor for making the effort, but nevertheless, I struggled to fully enjoy and appreciate the finished product.