But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.
I always forget that The Tempest is a comedy. It's a bitter kind of comedy, but it ends with a wedding, so by the rules of Shakespearean taxonomy, it's a comedy. It's funny sometimes, too, particularly when dealing with the various misadventures of Trinculo and Stephano, the play's buffoons, but it's hard to see a comedy in the central narrative. It seems, rather, a bitter summation of the life of its conjuror, William Shakespeare, who ends the play with a lament to the end of things and a note of despair. Julie Taymor's interestingly genderqueer 2010 screen version plays Prospera's lament over the end credits as a Bjork-ish song. It's surprisingly effective.
What's that? Did I write "Prospera?" Not "Prospero?" I did indeed. That's the movie's central conceit. It changes Prospero's gender by casting Helen Mirren in the role. Are YOU going to argue that The Tempest starring Helen Mirren as Prospera is somehow a perversion of the play? A modern "reworking" that's unneccesary? Because I'm surely not going to make that argument. I can watch Mirren in anything, and giving her the role of one of literature's great magicians seems entirely meet, bookending her career as it does with Morgana Le Fey and Prospera. The adaptation works better than you might think, too. It certainly adds a certain feminist politic to Antonio's usurpation of Prospera's dukedom, and it adds a certain amount of historical resonance to her persecution as a witch. Frankly, I wish Shakespeare had thought of it himself, though if we assume that Prospero is an avatar of the author himself, I understand why he didn't. In any event, listening to Helen Mirren perform Shakespeare is a rare pleasure.
The Bard rises and falls on the actors and this film has pretty good ones. Some of the casting is unexpected, Dame Mirren aside. One doesn't look at Russell Brand and think "Shakespeare," but he works as Trinculo, the foppish jester. Equally unlikely, but surprisingly apt: Chris Cooper as Antonio, David Strathairn as King Alonso, and Alfred Molina as Stephano. Brand and Molina are terrific clowns in this movie, and their antics relieve the melancholy that often threatens to o'erwhelm some productions of the play. On the other side of the coin, Djimon Hounsou seems like an inevitable Caliban, while Felicity Jones is a splendid Miranda.
Ariel is played by Ben Whishaw and deserves some extra commentary. This film's conception of Ariel reinforces its subtle (and not so subtle) subversion of gender. Ariel is usually male, but in some scenes, Whishaw's naked form seems to have been appended with breasts. The play isn't nearly so ambiguous, but the movie seems to be taking the femininity of the name and making it literal. I like this.
Ultimately, this is Helen Mirren's film, though. She's one of the best Prosperos I've ever seen. There are few contemporary actors of any gender with the same kind of mix of gravitas and impish twinkle in her eye.
Taymor, for her part, is all over this with creative cinematic styling. This is less arty than Titus, it should be said, but the director's visual stamp is ever-present. Certain of the special effects flourishes remind me a bit of Taymor's Across the Universe, while stagings remind me of, I dunno, Derek Jarman maybe? I don't have any beef with this, really, because if any of Shakespeare's plays demanded special effects and "style," it's The Tempest, something that's been evident from Forbidden Planet through Prospero's Books. It's a nouveau tradition that this film gleefully inherits. It's an attractive movie, easy on the eyes. It's all so very fey that it almost slips past that The Tempest is as bitter a pill as it is. This was Shakespeare bidding his farewell to the "airy charms" of the theater. It's Shakespeare breaking his staff and drowning his books and shuffling off this mortal coil. There's a strong theme in Shakespeare, if you want to look for it, of the failure of rhetoric, which is one of the great paradoxes of Shakepeare's work. The Bard was, after all, arguably the greatest writer and poet in the history of the world, and throughout his plays, the word is inferior to the action and talk is a means by which evil is done and weakness is shown. The Tempest seems like Shakespeare's ultimate abdication of the life of letters and the life of the mind and of fantasy as a way of life. As he wrote elsewhere, "when my mistress walks, she treads upon the ground." The flights of fantasy one finds in The Tempest are a delight, but their juxtaposition with Prospera's ultimate vacating of her spells and books creates a kind of cognitive dissonance. It's an easy play to admire. It's a hard play to love, especially among the kinds of people who become Bardolators. We live in our minds, after all, we are suckled by books all our lives. And here is William Shakespeare telling us to drown those books and join the dance.