There was an awesome event in Toronto in October; The Tempest (2010) was playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of a promotional event for Margaret Atwood’s latest book, Hag-Seed (a book review will be forthcoming). Said author was also in-house to talk about the film and her book, including her reasons for basing her story on The Tempest and her influences while she wrote the story. Plus there was a book signing afterward too! (*squeeeeeeeeeeeeee*)
The following review will consider the film’s good, the bad, and its success/failure as a retelling/interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic play. There will be spoilers, but hey, the story’s over four hundred years old, so you can’t blame me if you don’t know how it ends!
First and foremost Helen Mirren does a fantastic job in the lead role. Ms. Mirren has had a storied career, and one can tell immediately that she is capable of carrying a film all on her own. As Prospera she combines dignity, power, motherliness, grace, and vengeance into a single enigmatic character. In fact, the acting was great all around. Djimon Hounsou‘s Caliban was savage yet pitiable, and Ben Wishaw’s Ariel was awe-inspiring yet flighty. These two actors in particular gave extra life and colour to the film, going well above and beyond with their roles.
Another thing the film does well is that it doesn’t stray too far from the source material. There have been countless Shakespeare adaptions, and some have been cringey, some corny, and some have become classics in of themselves. This film does indeed try to modernize the original play with special effects and music, but the interpretation is most definitely respectful and faithful to the classic play. The setting and time period stays true, and the major themes and key lines are present, and that’s really the minimum anyone can ask for in a Shakespeare adaptation.
Right off the bat I could tell this wasn’t a movie for non-Shakespeare fans. If you don’t know anything about the original play, it is highly unlikely that you will enjoy this film. For one, it sticks closely (though not completely) to the language of the day, which means almost everything will sound confusing and convoluted to the untrained ear. This also means that the director has assumed you know the plot already, and takes for granted the plot holes and character quirks littered throughout the main plot (even though the King and his advisor awakes, Sebastian and Antonio are still two young men against two old dudes; why does Ariel have to listen to Prospera? His power is obviously greater than his master’s; and finally, Miranda and Ferdinand perpetuate the worst thing about Disney Princess love [see: Ariel in the little mermaid and almost every other princess]). It bothers me when movies skip over logic, because it feels patronizing towards the audience. In this case, however, the movie merely assumes you are aware of the original manuscript and have accepted the storytelling standards of Shakespeare’s time.
Another thing that stood out was the use of CGI, which I’m torn on. On the one hand it looked amazing, and gave the film a unique and provocative aesthetic. Ariel transformation into various nymphs and sylphs was simply mesmerizing. On the other hand it felt a little over-the-top, especially with the heavy metal soundtrack playing in the background. In certain scenes it was done well, enhancing Ariel’s actions and power, while in others it seemed presumptuous and unnecessary. Hit or miss, really.
All the World’s a Stage
A note on Shakespeare adaptations. This is purely my subjective, humble, opinion, but I believe Shakespeare adaptations will always have difficulty finding success unless they are willing to reconstruct the entire world anew. What I mean by this is that either these movies take place in their respective time periods and stick with Olde English, or if it has a contemporary setting then they should use today’s language. Anything else results in something that is silly and out of place, and dishonest.
Dishonest: If you’re going to use Shakespearen language, and I mean full kettle (diction, mannerisms, accents, all the thou’s, thy’s, and dost’s altogether), then you must place it within its proper setting. Anything else feels forced, and in honouring Shakespeare’s writing and context, you sacrifice the identity and integrity of your own film (because you did choose a modern setting for a reason, yes?). Trying to satirize modern-day society is awkward when you use an unfamiliar and out-of-date vernacular. On the other hand, a script that puts the story of Macbeth or King Lear, for example, within the setting of a corporation or mafia family or anything modern is almost always instantly interesting, especially when a masterful writer can work in the soliloquies and sonnets into an updated and tweaked script.
The Tempest (2010), therefore, strikes a good balance. The setting is ambiguous enough so that we don’t really know what year it takes place in, but the clothing and the dialogue is enough to convince us it took place in the past, closer to Shakespeare’s time. In that respect, the film succeeds in being a Shakespeare play and its own drama simultaneously.
Don’t watch this film if you don’t dig Shakespeare, otherwise you’re in for a slow, boring, and confusing hour and a half. Those who are familiar with the original play will be treated to excellent performance and a script that avoids being cheesy (for the most part) while also being respectful of its source material (no easy feat, I would imagine). Definitely a must-watch if you’re doing some kind of Shakespeare binge or something.
And with that our revels now are ended. This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.