It’s the same old story: A young mother with the unusual name of Prospera who has a four-year-old child is cheated of her inheritance when her husband dies and her greedy brother forces her to leave, penniless, into the rough world. She grows strong, self-reliant and determined. As she thinks about her fate, sulphurous resentment bubbles even as she bends her new life to her will. Yet she raises her daughter gently and with love. Then after 12 years, Prospera learns that those responsible for her disinheritance unknowingly have wandered close.
Will Prospera find only stale and bitter crackers upon which to munch as the days pass and she considers a hearty broth of vengeance…or will she learn…hmmm, what exactly?
Will her daughter, Miranda, all of 16, beautiful and innocent and who has never seen a man, become pregnant by the handsome young fellow she soon will meet?
And will this story, like many a well-known Hollywood potboiler starring the likes of Claudette Colbert and Lana Turner, end with self-sacrifice, with murder, or with…?
Folks, this isn’t Fanny Hurst. It’s William Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s words The Tempest isn’t just a tale of vengeful comeuppance. It’s a marvelously written story of humanity and the gaining of wisdom. It is one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. In my much younger days I loved Richard III and Henry V. Then I fell for Macbeth, Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In my increasingly feeble old age, it’s The Tempest for me. Can any grownup not hear or read “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep” and sigh?
In Julie Taymore’s hands The Tempest becomes spectacle, and about as shallow as a plate. There’s little quiet time or reflection when it comes to Taymore. Her movie of Titus was great fun because of her excesses and originality of vision. Titus the play is grotesque with all those beheadings, betrayals, rapes and bombast. The meals alone will make you regurgitate. Taymore’s film matched the play with its bedeviling, wonderful visuals and clever updating.
Here with The Tempest we have some fine actors who know how to speak the speech. Helen Mirren as Prospera dominates the movie just as Prospero does. She can hate and roar and fulminate powerfully. She can also be tender, introspective and tentative. She is utterly believable. Just as importantly, Mirren is understandable. She makes Shakespeare’s verse clear. She is, unfortunately, enclouded in Traymore’s vision and effects. (If you’d like to see a very young Mirren deal with Shakespeare, try to find a copy of Peter Hall’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968). Mirren at 23 plays Hermia. She’s lithe, sexy and could speak Shakespeare clearly even then.)
Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books was a moving set of lush, eccentric dreams, all floating on John Gielgud’s mellow voice. We could understand him, too. Greenaway wanted dreams and he succeeded in blending together his vision with Shakespeare’s play. Greenaway and Gielgud place us in a lush, odd world, but regret, humanity and wisdom is there.
Taymore’s Tempest, in my view, lacks a soul. At least she has Mirren. As A. O. Scott wrote in the New York Times, “Messing around with Shakespeare is the bedeviling vice of directors. Saving him from their excesses is the great and noble duty of actors.”