By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act September 13, 2011 at 6:23AM
It took almost a year for this to finally make its way to home video - Julie Taymor's modern retelling of William Shakespeare's The Tempest, which stars Helen Mirren, Russell Brand, Alfred Molina, Djimon Hounsou, Alan Cumming, Chris Cooper, David Straitharn, amongst others.
Our man Hounsou plays the film's resident villain, and *deformed monster* Caliban.
The $20 million film only grossed about $350,000 in total worldwide box office, and was nominated for an Oscar in the Costume Design category.
Amazon.com has the film in 3 formats: DVD, Blu-ray and VOD. So you could head over there right now and stream it on your computer, or TV screen (with the right attachments) for about $4. Given its box office numbers, I'm guessing very few of you actually saw it. Well, here's your chance. It's Julie Taymor, so expect the unexpected :)
I saw the film at the New York Film Festival and reviewed it soon afterward. In consideration of its DVD/Blu-ray/VOD release today, here's that review again if you missed it the first time (given other reviews, I was clearly in the minority in my appreciation of the work):
Alright, so I've let it sit for about 3 days now. I saw it on Thursday afternoon - planning on reviewing it on Friday, but obviously didn't; Partly because I was consumed with a myriad of other matters, business and personal; but also because, I read several other reviews of the film, from reviewers and critics whose opinions I respect (whether they're inline with mine or not), and was a little astonished to learn that most of them didn't like the film at all. Some of them even seemed to truly despise it. That of course gave me cause to pause and ponder my own reaction to the film, which was counter to theirs - hence my delay in typing up my own review of it.
As I said in my preview, I enjoyed Julie Taymor's rendition of The Tempest. And, while I was indeed concerned that there might be some issues with the film that are completely lost on me, given the other reviews I read, 3 days and some mental wrestling later, I can still say, unequivocally, that I really did enjoy the film.
It may not be Taymor's best work, but it's still worthy of recognition.
In reading other critiques of the film, I'd say that the reasons why some seem to dislike it, are the very same reasons that I appreciated it. I've read and heard words like stagy, campy, kitschy thrown about in describing the film; but it is the film's style that I found one of its most appealing attributes. Maybe there's a kind of reverence some expect in the handling of Shakespeare's work, simply because it's "SHAKESPEARE;" but I was thoroughly amused by Taymor's bold, unconventional choices, which may be seen as irreverent, and which would be an incorrect assumption to make, because, in listening to Taymor talk about the project during the Q&A that followed the screening, it's obvious how much passion she has for Shakespeare's works. From her adaptation of Titus, to the fact that she has directed his plays for the theater stage several times in the past; So this wasn't just some pastiche of ideas. It was all very well thought out and executed.
And that it feels stagy should be no surprise. This is Taymor we're talking about, who got her start in theater before moving to film. So, I'd fully expect her works to be an extension of what she's most well-versed in. But to say that she hasn't yet fully grasped cinematic language (as one reviewer seemed to suggest) is certainly up for debate. Taymor isn't a conventional filmmaker by any means, and I think anyone going into one of her films should be fully aware of that fact. It is her style that defines the filmmaker many know and love. She's an acquired taste. We know what to expect and that's what we're drawn to. I appreciate what I see as her attempts to disrupt the expected order of things; they may not even be conscious attempts, so she's not just some pretentious filmmaker. This is her way. And that's part of what makes her interesting, I think.
The film itself exists outside of time, we could say. It's a mosh pit of ideas, and refuses to be easily boxed. For example, the combination of costumes that seem to be classically influenced, but still with a contemporary, possibly even futuristic feel to them, and that one might actually find on the runway of one of fashions more daring designer's showcase; or the soundtrack, part Renaissance, part rock and roll, part emo, part ambiance, and likely so many other disparate ingredients; the location - shooting around Hawaii's stark volcanic regions, making wonderful use of peaks and valleys, skies and earth, giving the film both a heavenly and hellish air to it; and more.
But it all works - at least for me. I liked the almost otherworldly quality about the film. You may be tempted to try and make logical sense of it all, but it'll likely lead to frustration, and thus you're practically forced to just give yourself over to the mystical universe she creates. You certainly don't have to, but it's what I'd recommend, and with good reason, other than avoiding a headache; notably, the wonderful cast, led by Helen Mirren, David Strathairn, Chris Cooper, Ben Whishaw, Alfred Molina, Djimon Hounsou, Russell Brand, and a few others (Reeve Carney as the young prince Ferdinand, being the lone distraction). We could say the acting is one of the film's stars (the production design and cinematography being the others). It's just a great cast, and it was a joy to watch a group of mostly revered actors perform together in one film - some of them who are also stage veterans, or are certainly no stranger to theater, and have even done Shakespeare previously, which naturally makes them near-perfect fits to help execute Taymor's interpretation of the film.
Even Djimon Hounsou's performance as Caliban, was noteworthy. I think it probably would have been difficult for him to slouch in the presence of the level of talent he was surrounded by. There were instances when I'd have preferred that he reign things in a bit, but, overall, I was pleased with what he did with the role.
And while I'm on that subject... the issue of Taymor's characterization of Caliban, as played by Djimon Hounsou, has been the subject of much scrutiny, since news of the casting of the Beninois-American actor/model. Those familiar with the original Shakespearean work will know that Caliban is literally defined as a deformed monster servant of Prospero (Prospera in this case). In fact, he's sometimes referred to as mooncalf, a term once used to describe the abortive fetus of a farm animal, but, in Shakespearean vernacular, came to refer to visual monstrosities. Simply put, the character isn't going to win any beauty pageants.
Djimon himself isn't a particularly hideous looking fellow (in fact, I'm sure there are many out there who'd say he was the exact opposite), and thus, for effect, Taymor covers him with what effectively look like cracks of earth and paint. He's supposed to represent nature, so there's this dichotomy between the heavens (specifically the moon) and the earth, in his makeup.
As a refresher... the play’s protagonist is the banished sorcerer Prospera (played by Mirren in a gender switch by Taymor), rightful Duke of Milan, usurped by her brother and sent off with her young daughter, Miranda, on a ship. She ends up on an island; it’s a tabula rasa – absent of a society, although already inhabited by Caliban. Prospera seeks to establish a new society under her rule, with the help of her sprite, Ariel (an androgynous Ben Whishaw) which leads to a power struggle between Caliban and Prospera, won by Prospera, who uses her magical powers to enslave him.
The entire play takes place on the island.
In Shakespeare’s original play, Caliban is the son of Sycorax, an Algerian witch, banished to the island by Prospero/Prospera, where she eventually gives birth to her son, Caliban, before dying. Caliban is initially adopted and raised by Prospera, after she is also banished to the island. He teaches Prospera how to survive on the island, while Prospera and Miranda (the daughter) teach Caliban religion and their own language.
Following Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda, he is compelled by Prospera to serve as the sorcerer’s slave. In slavery, Caliban comes to view Prospera as a tyrant and grows to resent her and Miranda. They in turn view Caliban with contempt and disgust.
Caliban then attempts to raise a rebellion against Prospera, while Prospera works to establish a romantic relationship for Miranda and a suitor, Ferdinand, as she manipulates the course of enemies, raising a tempest (a violent storm) that leads them ashore in an attempt to determine the source of her betrayal.
The addition of Hounsou as Caliban obviously creates some substantive layers to the story that many (myself included) initially wondered whether Taymor was aware of, when she made the decision to cast him; in a nutshell, colonization, leading to slavery, specifically… *invasion* of a land by foreigners – a land described as being absent of society/culture (based on the foreigner’s POV, of course) – teaching their religion and language to the land’s indigenous people (thought of as “deformed monsters”), before eventually muscling their way to power, and instituting their own brand of “society,” turning the land’s inhabitants into slave labor.
Any of all that sound remotely familiar? It should.
After seeing the film, and listening to Taymor discuss it afterward, while she was aware of what the casting of Hounsou could suggest, she wasn't at all intent on shaping the adaptation in a way that actually questions morality in colonialism, or neo-colonialism or imperialism, nor making any present-day allegories.
Nature versus nurture was her summation of the narrative; nature as represented by Caliban (Hounsou, as already described), and nurture seen through Prospera (Mirren). Taymor stated that she's previously directed the work for the stage more than a couple of times, and with each production, she's cast a black man in the role (Caliban, as written by Shakespeare, is a man of color. His mother is North African - specifically, Algerian; so, we certainly could say that he is of the African Diaspora).
I think it's also important to take into account the European perceptions of Africans around Shakespeare's time, which could be reflected in his vision of the character. Terms like "monstrous" wouldn't have been so out of the ordinary. It certainly doesn't justify it, alas, so it was then.
But, I'm not sure if anything I say here will assuage or heighten any preconceived notions anyone may already have about the portrayal; you'll just have to wait to see the film and judge for yourselves.
The bottomline for me here is that I can't say that I felt any malice on Taymor's part. Yes, seeing Hounsou (the only unclothed character in the film – a loin cloth over his genitals), is at first jarring. But I was able to eventually look past the surface, see the individual performance, and appreciate the movie overall. As I said previously, it was also extremely helpful to listen to Taymor answer the question posed to her, about the racial implications regarding that specific role. She was forthcoming, and thorough in her explanation. I didn’t at all get the impression that the characterization was due to a lack of awareness on her part. It’s clear that she did give the casting choice a lot of thought.
And as I've also said on this blog recently, I'm moving past the knee-jerk reactions we often have to perceived dishonorable portrayals of black people on screen. Intent, on the part of the artist, is key; and I'm now more inclined to look at individual performances, instead of burying them all in the same ditch. In this specific case, if anything, I'd say that Hounsou was more courageous than foolish in taking the part, being fully aware of what the reactions might be.
It's worth noting, if it's not already clear, that the film is in Shakespeare's tongue. Taymor doesn't contemporize the language to make the film more accessible. So, almost like listening to an opera, if you're not already familiar with the words, you'll likely strain your ears trying to catch every utterance, likely only to end up frustrated at how challenging it is to comprehend. So, you might miss some meaning here and there; however, I'd say that, if you're paying attention, you should grasp the overall sentiment, enough to enjoy the experience.
So far I think I'm in the minority when I say that The Tempest is definitely worth a look, even if you've never seen any if Taymor's past work. A heavily stylized, unconventional piece of cinema. Defiant and unapologetic even. And that might turn some people off; but I was engaged for much of its 110-minute running time. It's not the year's best, but it'll likely be in my top 10.