The Tempest (2010)
The players are all in place. Shakespeare’s famous play. Julie Taymor, who made the excellent “Titus,” has adapted the script and is directing. The supporting cast has excellent actors like Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, and Alfred Molina. Russel Brand was cast as a clown. Djimon Honsou plays Caliban, and the wispy Ben Whishaw (from “Perfume”) plays Ariel. What’s more, Taymor changed the sexd of Prospero, and cast the excellent Helen Mirren in the role. Given Taymor’s propensity for gorgeously overdesigned theatrical trickery and enthusiasm for Shakespeare, this film ought to be great.
I’m sad to report that Julie Taymor’s version of “The Tempest” is rather disappointing. What is a play that alternates between comic trickery, vengeful violence, sweet romance, and, overall, the peaceful forgiving complacency of peace and forgiveness that comes with old age, is transformed into a limp parable about feminism and a few offensive scenes with Caliban that stress the horrible imperialist leanings of the play. Taymor has directed this play on stage before. She has read it tie and again, rew-rote it, and clearly has a passion for it. Is this the best she could do? This half-assed, effects-driven not-so-spectacular? I suppose one can phone it in, even on material they’re passionate about.
It would be all the more tragic if Taymor was not able to work on “The Tempest” with the zeal she would have liked because she was working on her potentially disastrous “Spider-Man” musical. I’d hate to think that Shakespeare was a casualty of Spider-Man. Of course, that would make the exciting disaster of “Turn Off the Dark” all the more thrilling.
Anyway, the story, for those of you who didn’t have to read it in school: A deposed duke (or duchess in this case), named Prospera (Mirren) has been banished to a tropical island for her practice of witchcraft. There, she honed her skills, enslaved two spirits, Caliban and Ariel, raised a child named Miranda (Felicity Jones). She uses her powers to shipwreck her captors (Strathairn, Cooper, etc.) on her island, where she intends to use Ariel’s magical powers to torment and kill them. Some clowns (Brand, Molina) discovers the earth Caliban, and turn him into a drinking buddy. A handsome young prince named Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) finds Miranda, and they fall in love. Their love softens Prospera, she realizes how tired she is of her vengeful plans, and forgives her captors.
Yes, the play is a bit more complicated than that, but that’s all you need for the film.
There were a few parts of “The Tempest” that I liked. I liked Molina and Brand as the clowns. I liked Taymor’s unusual costume choices (everyone in in zipper-encrusted regal wear, giving the film a fetishistic twinge). I like the sequence where Ariel appears as a blackened harpy. I liked that Ariel was a wispy androgyne, complete with Brigadoon-like breasts. Mirren bit into the language as if she was finally relieved to have great words in her mouth.
But the rest of the film is clunky and overwrought. The two young lovers are utterly gorgeous, but are about as boring as dry toast. The feminist parable is limp and underbaked. Also, being lost on an island makes for frustratingly vague staging; we never know where that characters are in relation to one another. This is not an issue when it comes to the stage, but in a film like this, where the characters are all separated, it would help if I knew they were getting closer to one another.
It’s odd. Julie Taymor can take a bloody, crowd-pleasing Elizabethan potboiler like “Titus Andronicus,” and turn it into a stirring, memorable film, that pulls all the strength of a maligned play to its surface, using her bombastically aggrandizing opera designs, and previously-untapped filmmaking savvy. Then she turns around to one of Shakespeare’s better known plays, one with all manner of themes to explore, assemble a first-rate cast, and then give little attention to it.
I still want to see her return to The Bard at some point, but only when she gives it her all.