This review originally ran during the 2010 New York Film Festival.
Everything associated with Julie Taymor‘s “The Tempest,” at least in the initial build-up of pre-release hype, has been built around the faux-provocation of Helen Mirren, distinguished British film actress, multiple award winner, Queen of England, playing Prospero, a character that has traditionally been portrayed as being male, in Shakespeare’s classic play. (In the new movie, she’s now called Prospera.) It’s only after you’ve been watching the movie for a few minutes, after you take in the changes in the character (if you’re a Shakespeare fan or graduated with a Literary Studies degree), that the momentary thrill subsides and then vanishes altogether. The reason all the hype is centered around this slightly oddball casting decision is because there’s nothing else to sell the rest of “The Tempest” on.
Which is to say: “The Tempest” is bad. Like, really, really bad.
But it does have a nice title card: large, crisp font, taking up much of the screen, superimposed over the arresting, surreal image of a tiny sandcastle in the palm of a young girl’s hand. But once this image is gone, and it’s gone fairly quickly, the goofy overwrought nightmare that is “The Tempest” consumes you.
“The Tempest” is considered, at least by Taymor herself, to be one of Shakespeare’s “greats.” In her movie, Prospera is a would-be duchess who has been banished to an inhospitable island to live with her child (played by the apple-cheeked Felicity Jones) after charges of witchcraft are leveled against her. When the film opens, it’s been 12 years since her banishment, and, using her keen mastery of both science and magic, as well as her friendship with an androgynous nature sprite named Ariel (Ben Whishaw), she maroons those who conspired against her on the same forbidding isle. Said conspirators include King of Naples Alonzo (David Strathairn) and Alonzo’s brother and son (Chris Cooper and Alan Cumming). Also on the island: a pair of bumbling drunks (Alfred Molina and Russell Brand) and the island’s natural inhabitant Caliban (Djimon Hounsou).
The plot is classically Shakespearean, with the three threads interweaving haphazardly throughout until they all reconcile at the end, with a message that is less about vengeance and more about forgiveness and moving on. A nice sentiment that still resonates four hundred years later. (There’s also some stuff about Prospera’s daughter getting involved with Ferdinand, played by Reeve Carney, but those are probably the dopiest sections of the already dopey movie.)
It’s clear what a huge mess “The Tempest” is from very early on, with the titular storm bearing down on the conspirators’ ship. It’s well photographed by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, with the action being staged not unlike something from the latter “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. At this point, the score by Eliot Goldenthal hasn’t gotten too overbearing. Yes, it’s a bit much, but it’s a couple of scenes later, when Prospera is going over the attack with Ariel, do we realize just how awful this is going to be. As Ariel recounts the storm, we see him gliding above the ship, laughing maniacally, with Goldenthal’s music mutates into some kind of acid rock mutation, with gnarled electric guitars raging; the word “embarrassing” comes to mind.
But, amazingly, this is the tip of the bad-taste iceberg, as throughout the film, Taymor takes advantage of the digital visual effects she fell in love with on her borderline unwatchable Beatles jukebox musical “Across the Universe,” to turn Ariel into a swarm of frogs, a giant crow, and a pack of flame-breathing dogs. The effects, supervised by the amazing title designer Kyle Cooper, have an ethereal look that doesn’t conjure magical surrealism but a rather a liquidy impermanence. All the while, Ben Whishaw, a normally fine actor, does his best to look dignified, even when his face is being digitally painted into the trunk of a tree and his hair has more product in it than the entire cast of “Jersey Shore” (he looks slightly electrocuted).
As far as casting goes, Whishaw is one of the better calls. Chris Cooper seems wildly out-of-place, but then gets into a groove with his character; by the end of the film you’ll be glad he was there, because he seemed to add a little bit of authenticity and humanity to a movie that seemed more concerned with its glitzy visual effects and elaborate costumes than with emotional connectivity. Mirren is wonderful, of course, but spends stretches of the movie off-camera. That was sort of a given. It should, however, be noted that there hasn’t been a recent example of sticking-out-like-a-sore-thumb casting as shameful as Russell Brand’s. His performance, as the bumbling clown, is supposed to be a little larger than life. Every time he shows up it’s like somebody has painted a yellow slash down the center of the screen; it’s distracting, off-putting and awful.
Taymor keeps large sections of the text, and outfits her characters in decadent duds (we’d kill for one of those YSL-ish leather jackets) that she said were meant to symbolize timelessness. What they really symbolize is a director more comfortable with camp than with craft, and the way she shoots much of the movie, with the actors taking up the foreground of the shot while the backgrounds (the movie was shot on location in Hawaii) turn into indistinct mush, robs the movie of any sense of scope. It becomes less about the text, the amazing actors that are saying the lines, and the scale afforded by motion pictures, and more about Taymor’s lackluster staging.
Bogglingly, “The Tempest” is the “Centerpiece Film” at the New York Film Festival and closed out Venice earlier this year and is being groomed by some as an Oscar heavyweight, once it opens in December. It’s absolute absurd to think this, and we’re quick to peg it as this year’s “Nine:” a movie that seems to have prestige written all over it, until people actually see it. Or, in the words of the Bard: “the past is prologue.” [D]