Shakespeare's magic thrives in darkness. Many of his most memorable, transformative plays include unfathomable horrors. And The Tempest, perhaps his most overtly magical play, must beguile us but also confront us with madness. Julie Taymor's version doesn't quite get there.
Shakespearean spoilers below!
I loved Taymor's movie of Titus Andronicus — called simply Titus — because she managed to find the beauty in the absolute degradation and raw nastiness of one of Shakespeare's seldom-staged plays. (I have a whole theory about why Titus Andronicus is an underrated Shakespearean masterpiece, which I'll spare you.) Titus was one of my all-time favorite movie adaptations of a Shakespeare play, which left me with high hopes for Taymor's Tempest. And when I saw that Helen "god of acting" Mirren was playing a female version of Prospero, Prospera, the excitement was doubled.
Sadly, Taymor's Tempest didn't really work for me, for all the same reasons that I loved her Titus. I think it's the balance between beauty and horror — filming Titus is all about finding the little flashes of nobility and loveliness in the midst of an incredibly brutal story about mutilation and rape. Filming The Tempest would have to be sort of the reverse — find the darkness in between all of the pretty speeches and fancy magic. In particular, Prospero/Prospera has to be one evil motherfucker, the sorcerer and aristocrat who's been banished from her home and stuck on an island for years.
And Taymor gets seduced by all the prettiness and goes all-out with the gorgeous imagery and swoony loveliness — in a sense, she falls under Prospera's spell.
One huge mistake in Taymor's Tempest, in my book, is the over-reliance on CG. Ariel, played by Ben Whishaw, was added to the film in post-production, and is entirely greenscreened. And there are way, way too many moments where CG artifacts fill the screen with glitz and foofiness. We no longer need the beauty of Shakespeare's verse to convey the magic of what Prospera and Ariel are doing — we've got CG to blast it onto our eyeballs. It reminded me somewhat uncomfortably of Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones, but there's also a bit of a Michael Bay aesthetic to it. More! Bigger! Sparklier! Swooshier! You would not want Julie Taymor decorating your living room, or you'd have five different colors of drapes.
Taymor pretty much puts you on notice early on in the film that restraint is going out the window. We start with an utterly gorgeous image — a close-up of a sandcastle on a girl's hand, slowly melting as the eponymous Tempest starts up. And then we see the tempest happening (tons of CG) and finally pan over to Helen Mirren, who's causing the storm with her magic. And Helen Mirren looks at the camera and gives what Taymor probably hoped would be an unearthly howl — and the camera zooms down her throat as if Mirren is fellating our eyeballs. It's not a good introduction to Mirren's character.
From there on, it's pretty much a non-stop sprint to see how far past "over the top" we can get.
Mirren gives an enchanting performance, of course, because she's Helen Mirren. Her Prospera is vain, bitter, volatile, doting towards her daughter, and a magnetic presence throughout the film. She manages to convey shades of grief and remorse at the years she's lost, and her weathered face goes through a whole range of dark emotions.
Mirren's performance, in fact, is basically the one great thing in the movie. The other performances, by and large, are very broad. Djimon Hounsou, who's done a fine job in other roles, is cartoony and exaggerated as Caliban — snorting and wheezing and gurning up a storm. The young lovers, Felicity Jones and Reeve Carney, are syrupy in the extreme. And then there's the comic relief duo, Alfred Molina and Russell Brand who... I don't even know what to say.
I don't think I've ever seen Russell Brand in anything before — I know people have strong opinions about him, positively or negatively, but I've somehow missed the Brand train. All I know is, he's painful to watch in The Tempest — I have a feeling his completely excessive performance as Trinculo would work okay on stage, where Shakespeare's comic characters are often done in a sort of exaggerated, almost music hall style. But Brand (and to be honest, Molina) simply do not work on film.
In fact, the whole subplot involving Caliban is sort of a disaster in this film — in a nutshell, Caliban is the savage son of a witch named Sycorax, who died years ago. Prospera took Caliban under her wing and taught him her language, in return for which he showed her the island's secrets. Everything was copacetic, until Caliban tried to rape Prospera's daughter Miranda — and then in punishment, Prospera made Caliban sleep outside and started treating him like her slave. The enslaved Caliban comes across Brand and Molina's characters, and because Molina gives him liquor for the first time in his life, he decides Molina's a god, and he becomes Molina's servant instead of Prospera's. This leads to a lot of cavorting around the island, culminating in some very silly scenes of the three of them being chased by CG artifacts and making ridiculous faces at the camera.
I feel like the Caliban story, with all of its overtones about savages, needed a light touch and some chance for us, the audience, to sympathize with Caliban. Instead, we get an almost apocalyptically cartoony performance out of Hounsou, as well as the two guys he's sharing half his scenes with. You sense that every time the actors were pulling back a bit from the edge of total clowishness, Taymor stepped in and asked for a slightly louder performance, with perhaps more ludicrous facial expressions.
Update: I almost forgot to mention the singing. There's a lot of it, and it's pretty schlocky.
Here's a good moment for me to admit that The Tempest is not my favorite Shakespeare play — maybe I'm just a contrarian, but I think it's one of his most overrated works. It has some of his most beautiful speeches, and not much else — but actors love to say those gorgeous lines, and writers love to quote them. The actual story of The Tempest is total crap, though — it's pretty much the only story that Shakespeare didn't lift wholesale from other sources, and it shows. Prospero/a is the puppeteer who pulls everybody's strings, because that's the only way that Shakespeare can figure out to have the plot move forward. We're supposed to see Prospero/a having a huge change of heart, from revenge to forgiveness, but it's barely sketched in — instead, we get one of Shakespeare's least convincing love stories, between Miranda and Ferdinand. Like I said, the speeches are lovely but the story is flimsy. Terrible things have happened — but they all happened a long time ago, before the play starts.
Since I watched this film, I've been pondering how you'd go about filming The Tempest in a way that actually works. I think that you'd have to take some liberties with it, honestly, especially the Caliban stuff. But you'd also have to find ways to bring out the darkness and weirdness at the heart of this story so that the grand/foofy magic doesn't overwhelm the reader.
What you should not do, under any circumstances, is bombard the viewer with a casserole of plastic-looking CG artifacts and actors leering and flaring their nostrils directly into the camera. Unless you're really looking to create the next late-night drunken pizza orgy movie, in which case go right ahead.