The finest moment in Julie Taymor’s film of The Tempest occurs when the story has ended. Behind the credits a book drifts down through water, its leather covers separating from its bound pages. Beth Gibbons sings the play’s last lines – ‘lyrics by William Shakespeare’, the acknowledgment reads – with their plea for mercy and indulgence:
And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
Free from what, we might think. The speaker in the play is the once wronged Duke of Milan, now restored to his rights. The lines are a witty request for applause, the character is stepping in for the players and the author. But there is also a sense that the character can’t get out of the play unless we help, and why is he resisting a happy ending? This question is reinforced in the movie by the fact that we are hearing a new voice on the soundtrack, slow, quiet, full of discreet pain, tracing out a spare, folk-like tune by Elliot Goldenthal. We watch the book drift down in a sequence of different shots, wonder whose ending it is that risks despair, what is ending, and why this is all so mournful. Didn’t the kids get betrothed? The bad guys humiliated and then graciously forgiven?
The credit sequence refers back not to the scene just before it, where Prospero, or in this case Prospera, throws her staff off a rocky cliff, but to her earlier promise, intensely delivered over a tight close-up of her regretful eyes: ‘I’ll drown my book.’ The last part of The Tempest often feels strange in reading and performance because Prospero’s forgiveness of his enemies seems so fake, a matter of formal pardon that allows undying hatred to rage on as it likes, but here the emphasis is all on the abandonment of magic. No spells will ever come from that sinking book again, and the renunciation is real in a way the forgiveness is not. It’s not clear why the magician has to give up this power, but she unmistakably believes she has to – it’s the price of a return to the world beyond the island, and her daughter’s resumption of civilised life. Just as unmistakably, she doesn’t want to do this, she grieves as she does it, as the music grieves behind the drowned book and the credits. ‘This rough magic I here abjure,’ she says because the text prompts her to. But she doesn’t think the magic is rough and she is not abjuring it. She is retiring from the practice, getting rid of the instruments. Should we forgive her for her old arts or for giving them up?
Helen Mirren is brisk and authoritative as Prospera, fully in control of the show and not giving much away except when her relation to her magic comes up. What is often seen as the character’s meanness to Ariel is underplayed, and Mirren can easily let go of her revenge because her hatred itself seems rather perfunctory. However, she handles one difficult moment with perfect, thoughtful, understated calm. This is another crux in the play, where Prospero, effectively, forgives or pretends to forgive his foes because he doesn’t want to seem less human than an inhuman spirit. Ariel, touched by the plight he has been instructed to create for the villains, says that if Prospero saw these bewildered victims his ‘affections would become tender’, adding: ‘Mine would, sir, were I human.’ When Mirren delivers the next line – ‘And mine shall’ – she manages to drain it of all competition or reluctance; she’s worked out why Ariel might be right. In fact her affections don’t become tender – tenderness is not Mirren’s line – but she does recognise both Ariel’s claim to his own feeling and his knowledge of how humans ought to feel. She is saying she will do what she can, even if she isn’t generally fond of humans.
It’s an interesting move to make Prospero a woman, reminding us that 17th-century England was more used to seeing women in power than we are. The text requires remarkably few modifications. A few ‘sirs’ have to become ‘ma’ams’, and the duchess rather oddly used to govern a dukedom. Shakespeare would certainly not have been upset to hear a mistress called master. However, Mirren is so quietly comfortable in the role that the effect of the switch is not as startling as it was perhaps supposed to be. The heroine of Prime Suspect could hardly find a virtually deserted island a tough beat.
Of course it’s not even a backhanded compliment to say that a film’s finest moment comes in its last few frames. This version of The Tempest has other good moments, as I hope I have suggested. But most of it is rather too slow and stately, too respectful of the literal text, and lacking the buzz and invention that characterised Taymor’s Titus. Here even the magic itself, as distinct from the leaving of it, is rather conventional: flaming dogs, effects of astral charts and an Ariel who lives in water, changes predictably in size and keeps being sent around in runs of stop-motion shots, as if he were one of Muybridge’s horses being checked for methods of movement. Caliban is an aesthetic object rather than a monster or an abused slave, and his mixed black and white make-up suggests ballet rather than the movies.
And as almost always in modern versions of Shakespeare, whether on film or on stage, the comedians aren’t funny, they are just doing their best to represent what they (and their director) imagine other people thought was funny. It’s true that Stephano and Trinculo, in The Tempest, are not supposed to be only funny – they are murderous too – but this makes their pretend funniness all the more weakening. Perhaps they’re going to commit a pretend murder too.
Still, it’s bold of Taymor to have abjured the smooth magic of the movies from the start, to have insisted on tame and ordinary special effects. It’s as if she had all along been most interested in what Prospera would be without her props and her wizardry.