Despite the fact that we have seen numerous adaptations of English playwright William Shakespeare’s plays, and adaptation of The Tempest in particular, Julie Taymor’s latest is particularly queer. And it’s not just because Taymor changes the gender of the protagonist from male to female. Here she is a witch called Prospera, played with regal authority by Helen Mirren, a veteran thespian.
I don’t have problems with this sex re-assignment theory. Shakespeare’s works allow such perversity in abundance. The problem is if you dared to change this major aspect of the play, you must have the courage to change the tone of the narrative as well. Prospero is not just a male figure, he represents the upper-class, white male patriarchy — identities which just cannot be ignored.
In her telling, Taymor refuses to indulge in these issues. She keeps the play as it is. Though it is shot in natural setting and uses several CGI set-pieces involving Ariel, the dialogues are directly lifted from the bard, and frankly, the effect is jarring. The Elizabethan language (How now? and such...) is perfectly all right for the stage. But, when the characters perform naturalistically, and sprout Shakespearean English, the result is incongruous. Even actors like Mirren cannot help the matter.
At the end of the day, the film remains another Shakespeare adaptation, too close to the original which proves to be its undoing (even the gags by Russell Brand and Alfred Molina cannot help). In all this however Djimon Hounsou as Caliban does a perfectly credible job (“You teach me your language, and the profit is mine, for I can curse thee..”).
In comparison, Taymor’s adaptation of the bard’s Titus Adronicus as Titus (1999), starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, is far better film, with gratuitous and visceral display of violence in operatic grandeur (A girl is raped, her hand is severed and they fix a tree stump where her hand was.). Tymore also did the Frida Khalo biopic Frida (2002) and The Beatles inspired Across the Universe (2007).
For me, the best adaptation of The Tempest in film is Peter Greenway’s Prospero’s Books, starring John Gielgud as Prospero. Here, Gielgud speaks the dialogues for all the other characters and Greenway’s screen innovation involves extensive use of nudity, displayed with a naturist ethos, and the evocative soundtrack by Michael Nyman.