At the Movies

Michael Wood

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?

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