When I first heard that there was to be a movie of Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” with Helen Mirren playing the lead role (Prospera rather than Prospero), I nearly screamed with excitement. That was before it actually came out in theaters, and it turned out I wasn’t able to go and see it. As soon as the DVD was available for pre-order, I pre-ordered. And waited. And waited, as the release was delayed time and again. Finally it arrived, and finally I had a free evening to sit down and absorb it.
I loved so many things about this movie, Helen Mirren in the lead role first among them. She was so strong and powerful, so very believable as a middle-aged woman who wielded mighty forces of magic, who loved and wanted the best for her daughter, who was both arrogant and wise, who made mistakes. She gave me chills. I couldn’t look away. Also, her outfits were awesome.
The main difference the cross-gender casting made in the play was in Prospera’s background; Taymor added in a bit about how her husband was Duke, then she was made Duke in his place, so her later betrayal by the other heir had added resonance: she was a woman who earned power, which was then taken away by accusations of, basically, using her femininity/magic to gain power unnaturally. I think the cross-gender casting also made a difference in her relationship with Miranda. A same-sex parent/child relationship has a different feel to it; I got the feeling Prospera was trying to save Miranda from suffering at the hands of patriarchy in the same way she suffered (true, by marrying her off to some random wet guy…).
I thought all of the performers were amazing, with the exception of Reeve Carney. He played Ferdinand, who seemed impossibly low-key and bland in comparison to the other actors; in the accompanying documentary, I found out he was a singer rather than an actor, which makes sense. He was simply overpowered. In all of his scenes with Felicity Jones, who played Miranda, I was fixated on her and could barely remember to look at him. He did a lovely job with his singing, though!
My favorite performers, after Mirren, were Ben Whishaw as Ariel and Djimon Hounsou as Caliban. Both men wonderfully embodied the otherworldly aspects of their characters. It’s true there were a lot of special effects surrounding Ariel, but the actor’s face and voice and especially how he used his body were a big part of how I experienced the character. He was especially deft in showing hints of emotion between Ariel and Prospera. Hounsou as Caliban had a lot of wacky body and face makeup, but I think he would have been fine without it, because he did so much with his body and voice to show Caliban’s complex, twisted mess of loneliness and ambition and pain. Also, I really like Hounsou’s speaking voice.
The movie was filmed on a small island in Hawaii, very cool since the play itself takes place on an island. The landscape, especially the vistas of cracked lava rock, had an eerie, bleak feel that I loved each time that the cameras returned to it. It became part, in my mind, of Prospera’s bleak, revenge-driven emotional landscape, tempered only by her love for her daughter.
Some viewers might find some of the special effects silly at times (they were low-budget). I didn’t mind them. To me, they were fine if not state-of-the-art (the Ariel water effects were more than fine!). It was the actors’ performances that were important to me, and I found they were utterly worth the wait.