Such Stuff as Dreams: The Tempest vs. Ida

Shakespeare, The Tempest

Sherman Howard (Prospero) and Erin Partin (Ariel) in The Tempest, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (photo:

Quite a contrast recently between the nonstop cannonade of literary touchstones in The Tempest—in an exuberant and colorful production at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, alas, only through June 22—and the oppressive restraint of the near-silent black-and-white movie from Poland, Ida, viewed the same day (trailer).

In the live—and lively—play, the portrayals by Sherman Howard (Prospero), Lindsey Kyler (Miranda), John Barker (Caliban), and especially Erin Partin (Ariel) were remarkable.

Shakespeare touches button after button with his iconic quotes: “Hell is empty and all the devils are here” (wait, that sounds like John Boehner’s voice!), “Now I will believe that there are unicorns,” “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” “What’s past is prologue,” , “O, brave new world, that has such people in’t,” “my library was dukedom large enough,” or “he receives comfort like cold porridge,” Ida has hardly any dialog.

David Denby in The New Yorker puts a positive spin on this, saying, “I can’t recall a movie that makes such expressive use of silence and portraiture.” In Ida, instead of being carried along by a current of words, we float in a bleak, misty, ambiguous atmosphere, albeit rendered with beautiful cinematography, “every shot as definitive as an icon,” Denby says, quite truly.

But after all Shakespeare’s verbal passion, Ida felt like cold porridge indeed. Perhaps the filmmakers had some great story in mind and just forgot to tell it, because they give the barest of bones and leave viewers (me, anyway) with more questions than answers—not so much about the past, which the movie explores in sufficient glimpses—but about what is going on right now in the minds of the characters on the screen.

Agata Kulesza, does a fine job playing the aunt of the main character, a sheltered, opaque novitiate raised in a convent (Ida), played less well by Agata Trzebuchowska. The pair uncover a terrible but not uncommon World War II tragedy, and the question of whether exposure to her aunt’s earthiness will persuade somnambulant Ida to abandon the convent seems none too debatable. Bear in mind the Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it 93%, so don’t take my word for it.