*. This is one of my favourite adaptations of The Tempest — but I don’t think it’s ever a great movie, despite having so much promise. I don’t care for the play much in the first place, and for all its strengths this version feels too much like a film of its time.
*. Julie Taymor had directed stage productions of The Tempest before this, and as a film director had shown a strong, creative approach to Shakespeare in her interpretation of Titus Andronicus (Titus). In short, she knew what she was doing.
*. The casting is near perfect. I had no problem at all with Helen Mirren as the sorceress Prospera and think she does a marvelous job here, striking just the right note of forgiving but unapologetic sternness. Djimon Hounsou and Russell Brand both give great physical performances (and I love how the camera work matches this in the scene where they hide under the tarp together). Felicity Jones and Reeve Carney (suffering under a hilarious mop) both look pretty as the pair of drippy young lovers. The court party are all good, and I especially like Alan Cumming’s interpretation of Sebastian, making him a bit dimmer than usual and more easily led astray by the charismatic Antonio.
*. The costumes stand out, and the art direction is always interesting. The script is manipulated only a bit, and nowhere in a way that hurts the play.
*. So . . . why do I feel less than enthusiastic about this one?
*. A few little things stand out. The special effects aren’t that good. The devil dogs in particular are totally unconvincing, and I get the sense from listening to the commentary that Taymor thought so too. The Ariel effects were achieved through a complicated process that was not CGI, but still looks like CGI, and not in a good way. Aside from his turn as a harpy he just didn’t turn out right.
*. Then there’s the setting. It was shot in Hawaii, on the island of Lanai, which is today privately owned by Larry Ellison (he bought it off the previous owner in 2012). Bill Gates was married there. So much for Caliban getting his island back! He may still be out there fetching firewood.
*. It’s a fantastic setting, but not natural at all. There’s nothing wrong with that part, as this is a fantastic play. But Taymor says she wanted a “natural roughness” in some parts and never got it. It all seems too pretty and nice, in a National Geographic style.
*. Also, the music. I guess they were going for a dreamy effect but the results sound insipid to me. The songs in Shakespeare, however, are very hard to get right. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any I’ve heard that I particularly liked (though a lot of movies based on Shakespeare have had great scores).
*. But my real problem, I’m afraid, is that I just don’t like this play very much.
*. Sure it has some great poetry and remarkable passages that rank among some of Shakespeare’s finest. But it is also his least naturalistic, least dramatic work. There are only two interesting characters in it (Prospero and Caliban), the rest of the cast just being types. And there’s no drama to the situation: it’s all just a show being put on by Prospero. Antonio and Sebastian, and Stephano and Trinculo, may plot their coups, but we know nothing is going to come of it. Prospero is too much in charge.
*. The form it takes is the courtly masque. One thing this means is that it’s a play not just featuring but about special effects and other forms of magical artifice. As Julie Taymor puts it in the “making of” documentary Raising The Tempest, “Shakespeare wrote a visual effects piece.” This is certainly our present cinematic dominant mode, so if The Tempest isn’t necessarily a film for our time, it may be a film for our cinema. It’s no surprise that the next big production of The Tempest on film before this, Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991), was another such visual smorgasbord.
*. It was often remarked (by Roger Ebert, among others) that the effects and the design are over the top, but that’s not how I see it. I think that’s just the kind of play it is (though Ebert would disagree). And the imagery, as strong as it is, doesn’t overwhelm the play for me. It’s supposed to be a spectacle, and Taymor does keep some quiet moments.
*. Part of the problem with the magical visuals though is connected to what I said about this being a film of our time. This is very close to being a comic book movie. Helen Mirren reminds me of no one as much as Ian McKellen playing Magneto, while Ariel is a combination Nightcrawler and Mystique, and Caliban is The Thing. This too is what comes with being a film for our time.
*. Part of Caliban’s elaborate body make-up included having Elizabethan swear words scarred on to his skin. I didn’t notice any of this the first time I watched the movie. The second time, looking for it, I still couldn’t make anything out. In one shot I could see the suggestion of writing, but had no idea what the words were. I guess you can chalk that up to another one of those perhaps too-clever ideas that didn’t make much of a difference, though I was a bit surprised Taymor didn’t realize this wasn’t coming through. She could have either made a point of revealing the words or should have dropped it.
*. I like the way Taymor emphasizes the elemental schematics of the play. We begin with the earth dissolving in water, and then the storm mixes fire and water that makes the seas seem combustible. I was surprised to see the “airy spirit” Ariel jumping out of a pool, and continue to be presented by way of a watery effect, but he later adopts more conventional airy trappings (like transparency). Of course Caliban is a creature of the earth, and seems to have a skin of cracked clay.
*. I’ve called Ferdinand and Miranda drippy, but the play is not without sexual undertones. Taymor mentions on the commentary that there may be something going on between Antonio and Sebastian, and that’s something that does lend the seduction in the forest (one of the better uses of a natural location in the film) an extra spark.
*. The other sexual force is Heather Mirren’s Prospera. Taymor mentions the charge between the powerful older woman and the androgynous naked young man (Ben Whishaw). Personally, I think this all comes out of Mirren, who is a sexy beast even with minimal make-up. Ariel is the one character in the film I couldn’t get a read on. Of course he’s a spirit and never really one thing or the other, but I didn’t get the sense Taymor settled on giving him a particular identity.
*. I guess what disappoints me the most here is not that Taymor is too wild and free in her interpretation of the play, but too restrained. The preservation of ambiguity is a good thing, but at the end of the day every director of Shakespeare, for stage or screen, has to make hard decisions about what direction they’re going to take things in, what angle they’re going to play up. Like Prospero’s revels, or the magic sounds of the island, the visual magic here is bright and diverting but insubstantial. I was left wondering what, for Taymor, the play really means.