Prospera’s Plight: A Review of Julie Taymor’s The Tempest
The trailer of Julie Taymor’s The Tempest (2010) was as thrilling as the film was disappointing. Helen Mirren clad in a fantastic magic robe, sustaining a spectacular tempest on the point of her magic staff seemed to hold out the possibility of a brave new Tempest. If Shakespeare’s Prospero is to be recast as a woman, Prospera, surely it is because the change in gender would allow a re-interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most politically charged plays. The cinematic representation of Prospera’s magical effects crackled electric in that brief clip; after all, the magic in the play is a manifestation of power that informs the politics of race and gender. It seemed from the trailer that the exciting scholarship that academia has churned out in the last few years would come to bear on a slick production that boasts of a stellar cast and crew.
The film did not deliver the promise in its theatrical trailer. The point at which Taymor’s radical adaptation may have maximized in implication would have been in the film’s understanding of Sycorax: the blue eyed witch from Algiers, Caliban’s mother, the island’s original inhabitant and Ariel’s former employer. Sycorax was long seen as Prospero’s counterpoint, something the film leaves unquestioned. Sycorax is female, African; her magic is evil; she is a witch; in her death and absence, her defeat is played out by Caliban’s grudging servitude to Prospero. Prospero is a European white male; he is a scholar and practitioner of magic done right; he nurtures Miranda, and he is able to transcend and transform vengeance to forgiveness making him all sweetness and light — the justification of colonialism. Prospero’s magisterial grandness has long been deconstructed. Caliban and Sycorax have taken center stage in scholarship as the insightfulness of Caliban’s repressed rebellion has acquired a far greater degree of keenness in the face of the European misunderstanding of itself and others. The general understanding is that Prospero is not exempt from the madness and delusions that his ship wrecked enemies suffer on the island. Since Prospero’s grandness and great turn to forgiveness no longer turn the engine of the play’s appreciation, to re-imagine Prospero as a woman seems like exactly the thing to do. A Prospera could blur the sharpness of the distinction with Sycorax and make ambiguous the nature of the power asserted on that island. Instead of assuming the colonizing politics it could reveal the politics of colonization. Julie Taymor’s film flirts with these possibilities: Prospera is referred to as a “witch” at least once in the film; the forgiveness scenes are not convincing of a change in heart in anyone; when Caliban walks away holding Prospera’s gaze at the end of the film, it is clear that he is neither a thing of darkness nor hers. Djimon Hounsou plays a compelling Caliban but it is unclear to what end.
Like Caliban’s part, there are other moments of great performance and action in the film that hang like alluring wardrobe on a line. Ariel’s performance of the harpy scene is just about the best thing in the film. It wracks up a terrifying harpy out of a watery wispy Ariel who is complete with tar dripping teeth and frightening eyes. The other Ariel related special effects ranged from campy to plain tacky especially when the naked Ariel performs body contortions just to hide his genitals. Russell Brand made an entertaining Trinculo, Alfred Molina’s Stephano is not going to be his most memorable part. Miranda and Ferdinand were poorly cast and the little out of script love song instead of Juno’s masque did not do much towards celebrating the contract of true love. Mirren’s Prospera suffered from unclear direction. Over all the film had promise and potential but it lacked a clear interpretative vision. This is an instance when bridging the divide between popular culture and academic scholarship may have been very fruitful. All Taymor needed to have done is to have hired a research assistant to read up some of the current scholarship and used the summary report to come up with an ideologically engaging and powerful statement that is already being made with the new readings of The Tempest.