helen mirren as prospera in the tempest
This was one of those days of discovery, discovering a new artist in film director Julie Taymor, and discovering her film of Shakespeare's The TEMPEST with Helen Mirren playing Prospera, a feminine version of Prospero who was played immortally by John Gielgud in Peter Greenaway's PROSPERO'S BOOKS. For me, Greenaway's is the definitive rendering of Shakespeare's play. I didn't know what to expect going into Taymor's Tempest. The name Julie Taymor meant nothing to me, except I had seen her film FRIDA of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. I looked up a little bit of bio info on her and found she'd made a film of Stravinsky's opera, OEDIPUS REX, which I used to listen to on LP years ago, and Shakespeare's TITUS Andronicus with Anthony Hopkins. I liked what I saw so much in the Tempest I ran these last two to the top of my netflix Q. Julie Taymor caught my attention as an American artist I wanted to see more of.
I had no idea what to expect of the Tempest. I only knew that Helen Mirren was in it, reason enough for me to see the film. That she is in a film is all I need to know to want to see it. She first caught my attention in THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER. The title makes sense after seeing the film. It too is a Peter Greenaway film, the first one that drew my attention to him and to Helen Mirren. It is one of the most powerful films I've seen. It has a power as strong as Pasolini's OEDIPUS REX. It's not one to see often, but every viewing of it is rewarding to what I like a film to be, a work of art especially. The three previews that preceded the Tempest were all Disney movies. My heart sank. What if this is a Disney made-for-tv version of the Tempest like the Disney version of Pinocchio. I had a Disney television production in my mind going into it. And I was anticipating from the repeating visuals with the Menu that it might be a minimalist hi-tech Prospera with a feminist slant. When the first characters started speaking straight Shakespeare language, I had to turn on the subtitles, in shock that it was straight Shakespeare. I started seeing actors Alfred Molina, Russell Brand, Chris Cooper and Djmon Hounsou, the black man in GLADIATOR and BLOOD DIAMOND. Hounsou made as memorable a character as Caliban as he does with the characters in his other films. He has a great deal of the natural charisma an actor needs.
I saw that the characters were actors I've seen in several films over the years. Alfred Molina was unforgetable in THE PEREZ FAMILY made in Miami by Indian director Mira Nair, and Chris Cooper was unforgettable in AMERICAN BEAUTY and long string of other movies. These familiar actors showing up puzzled me. This was not a Disney slap-stick sitcom version of Shakespeare. A little ways into it I started seeing this is a serious film, which I'd taken it for when I put it on my Q, but all the intro going into it scared me into preparing myself for serious disappointment. By the time I recognized this is a real work of art, I was well enough into it to see for certain art was it's direction, a serious interpretation of The Tempest. The only thing "feminist" about it was Prospero as a woman. Nothing was made of it. It was not like any kind of big deal. She was the same as Prospera as would be a Prospero. She was Miranda's mother instead of father. It was Helen Mirren playing Shakespeare himself. She was aware of it and up to it. I've an idea she loved playing the role.
All scenes were outdoor in desert landscape. It had a sense of Pasolini about it in that way. I recalled his OEDIPUS REX filmed in North African desert landscape, and MEDEA. I'll be curious to see how Taymor portrays the Oedipus Rex story post-Pasolini. The Tempest happened on a desert island. It was Pasolini in color sometimes, though it was also the Tempest with Julie Taymor's hand in it, not Pasolini's. Of all the versions of the Tempest I've seen, this one is the most clear for distinguishing what the characters are about. Caliban in Prospero's Books was an Xtreme modern dancer who in one sense was the spirit of art itself, elements of the earth, like paint and sculptor's clay are made directly from earth. Art is materials of this earth arranged by form, color, design to give a sense of a living spirit in the work of art. The example I see in my mind's eye is Brancusi's Bird In Space. It is so the essence of bird shape it becomes bird spirit. Djmon Hounsou as Caliban represented Caliban in a way that felt right, his outrages of anger he had no control over, a man absolutely devoid of introspection. Caliban is like the missing link between animal and human. He has the human body, but his human sensibilities are limited though his animal nature is in full force. By animal nature, I mean pre-forebrain. More or less how we think of caveman consciousness.
By half way into the film I had seen much earlier that it was a serious interpretation of Shakespeare's Tempest to be regarded as such. By the time it was over, I was fully satisfied by Shakespeare's writing in story and in language. I felt Helen Mirren's portrayal of Prospera a tour de force for a great actress. Using desert landscape for stage set in every scene gives a sense of a stage production with an empty stage, no sets, just floor and walls. Peter Brook's Midsummer's Night Dream was performed on an empty stage. It's done so much since Waiting For Godot that by now it's just another option of how to stage a production. Sometimes no context can place emphasis somewhere else, like the landscape of the mind, the place where the production is playing out. I felt like using barren landscape in this film, as in a Pasolini film, makes it a story that is already inside the mind, an archetype that expresses differently in different contexts. The Tempest is an archetype the same as Oedipus Rex and Waiting For Godot.
As a portrayal of The Tempest, I felt closer to this one than to Prospero's Books. Peter Greenaway's version is itself with it's feet in The Tempest. Julie Taymor's Tempest is fully, and I mean fully like a full belly, satisfyingly Shakespeare's Tempest. In both film versions I beleive my favorite part is toward the end when Prospero/Prospera releases the spirit helpers kept as slaves by magician creator of characters that live their brief lives on stage. The spirit of air, fire and water, Ariel, and the spirit of the earth, Caliban, the playwright releases them as freed slaves to return to their life of freedom from restraint. Greenaway's film had so much going on at all times the story often faded into the spectacle and was lost for awhile. In Taymor's vision of the Tempest, the drift of the story is front and center, and the film in desert landscape makes a minimalist telling of the tale. Both Taymor's and Shakespeare's stories are pared down to the essential like a Brancusi sculpture, the minimal essence of the story, Shakespeare signing off as the magician on his own desert island of the mind where he commands spirits and creates characters, influences events. Prospero/Prospera's return from exile on a desert island, the mind, to the city with position and context, is retirement to the world of living one's everyday life again in the context of other people. Letting go of his characters that lived in his mind and the spirits that gave life to his characters is a sweet sorrow for the playwright/magician.