Thursday, June 21, 2012

movies: two Shakespeare, two Tudor

The Tempest, directed by Julie Taymor. Ursula Le Guin was bothered by changing Prospero to a woman. Not by Helen Mirren's acting - as Le Guin says, Mirren was excellent, in fact I'd say so much so that she made everybody else in the cast look bad, whether they actually were or not - but that the alteration of the premise of the text made it a different play.

I agree with Le Guin: it is a different play, and in more ways than might be immediately apparent. But that doesn't bother me so much. The dynamic with adapting something that's already in dramatic form is different from that of adapting a novel, and in any case there are plenty of other more "faithful" versions of The Tempest around.

There is, however, a difference between just making the actor a woman and actually tinkering with the text, and here they did both. Part of the problem with what Le Guin says of the actors not getting the beat of the poetry comes from lines being mangled out of their verse shape to fit the revised premise. Most changed was the narration of the backstory, in which Prospera, as she's called, was deposed from Milan not just for being distracted and unworldly, but because her wizardly studies laid her open to charges of witchcraft.

Then we almost immediately turn to the account of Sycorax - who is a witch - and you think, hey, maybe she's being libeled too, this time by Prospera. Or does Taymor want you to think that? Nothing more is made of the point.

The visuals were gorgeous and imaginative as you expect in a Taymor movie, filmed in Hawaiian primordial landscapes, and with surreal sfx to depict Ariel. But it seemed separate, not organic to the conception, and nothing else was done with the play than changing Prospero's sex. In particular the scenes of the various shipwrecked parties wandering around lost didn't gel. I didn't believe in them, and I didn't believe they were lost. In a Taymor movie I expect something more fundamentally weird than that, and in the past I've always gotten it.

On the other hand, there's ...

Coriolanus, directed by (and starring) Ralph Fiennes. Comparing The Tempest to this shows how much Taymor did do right. The problem with this Coriolanus is that the setting and visual style are so relentlessly up-to-now - the battle scenes are Bosnian street fighting, and the video is what you see on the news - that all it made me do is wonder, "Why are these people speaking Elizabethan verse?" It clashed, ludicrously. Taymor's Hawaii is unearthly; this is too quotidian. If you want to bring Shakespeare up to date, write your own play on the same theme, like West Side Story.

On to the Tudors.

The Tudors. I picked up a disc with the first three episodes of this miniseries at a Blockbuster clearance table for fifty cents. That's about what it's worth. Relentlessly political, with anachronistic references to a plan to establish the EU four centuries early (are they trying to be funny? because that's otherwise not the style at all) and it starts with the young Henry VIII already king, so a whole generation of Tudors is skipped. The opening scene shows an English ambassador to some Italian court being assassinated, and Henry is furious when he hears about this, because the ambassador was his uncle, and I was thinking, "What uncle?" Henry didn't have any living uncles; there had been two, but if you know anything about this period you should be able to figure out who they were and what happened to them. I haven't any books at hand that would reveal if the assassination story has any basis in fact at all, and I certainly can't be bothered to try to research it online.

Lady Jane, directed by Trevor Nunn. A 1986 movie I also picked up on the sales table. Starring, as Lady Jane Grey and her husband Guilford Dudley, two then young and unknown actors, Helena Bonham Carter and Cary Elwes. I don't know what effect this part had on HBC's budding career, but I do know that it was on the basis of his performance as Guilford that Elwes was offered the job as Westley in The Princess Bride. Which is where I first saw him, and I then thought, "This guy is great! Where did he come from?" Well, this is where he came from.

A dim-witted and ahistorical movie. Claims that Jane was deposed for trying to be a 20th century social reformer in 1553, using ideas she'd picked up from Guilford, who had in turn apparently picked them up from carousing in taverns. Also stars the long-suffering Michael Hordern and the long-sufferable John Wood, but the best entrance comes with a loud group of people coming into a hall from hunting, among them Jane's booming father, the Duke of Suffolk. He removes his hat, and underneath is the shining pate of ... Patrick Stewart! This was in fact his last movie before taking on the role of Captain Picard, so it's classic Stewart, the more juicily so in that Suffolk is crass and stupid, just what Picard is not.

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