I supposed my reaction to Julie Taymor’s photographically bold, yet cinematicly flat rendition of William Shakespeare’s play could be summed up by comparing the performance of Alan Cumming from her previous film Titus to the one he yields here. In Titus, he is a campy-over-the-top force of nature, a pure delight of showmanship. In The Tempest, he is yawning his way through the inevitable march across the Hawaiian voclanic badlands with an equally subdued Chris Cooper and David Strathairn. Maybe the gory Grand Guignol of Titus was a more suitable fit than the more introspective, meta-ish nature of The Tempest for her particular sort-of-a-stage-production-sort-of-a-film style. Outside of the farcical comedic elements, Alfred Molina is at his bawdy best here, with Russell Brand providing somewhat consistent support, which seem to capture the best elements of Shakespeare’s ability to play to the back of the room, The Tempest merely makes me want to go back and revisit Peter Greenaway’s take on the Bard with Prospero’s Books, or for that matter, just re-watch Tarsem’s The Fall.
The Tempest makes a gender change to its principle character, and orchestrator of nearly every event that happens over the course of the story. Prospero is now Prospera, ably played by Helen Mirren, but she doesn’t quite bring what she brought to The Queen, or even Calender Girls to the role here, and merely keeps her dignity while being dwarfed by the costumes and the big-sky-frame while uttering her lines. The gender change adds a curious element of witch-craft, for Prospera is booted out of Milan with her young daughter after her husband is killed by her Brother. There she washes up on the same island as TV’s Lost (both were filmed in Hawaii and take advantages of the variety of ecological features) and where Mirren gets create the smoke monsters (here a hermaphroditic sprite played interestingly by Ben Whishaw but not half as good has his John Keats in Campion’s Bright Star) who terrorizes and cajoles her tormentors. Her brother and company are crashed there at the hand of her witchery in an act of self-fulfilling prophecy in the name of revenge and restoring of the previous order. Prospera has her own Tabula Rasa in the form of her now 20-ish daughter, Miranda whose only experience of other people comes from the savage and angry Caliban (Djimon Hounsou in yet another Noble Savage performance albeit more tragic than usual, here), the only local inhabitant of the island, apparently born of witch and enslaved by Prospera upon her arrival. Felicity Jones spends most of her time barefoot and wide-eyed, especially when Miranda falls in love with Prince Ferdinand who also washes ashore from the ship wreck. The love story is the least compelling aspect of the story, rote and kept in the background being given less weight and screen time than the bad CGI flitter-flight of Ariel zipping around the island or the zipper-gone-wild wardrobe of the King’s men. In terms of intentional artifice in both wardrobe and computer graphics, I certainly lean far more into the camp of Terry Gilliam than Julie Taymor, but that is a matter of personal taste.
In the end, I enjoyed slapstick farce elements (probably the least important thing about the play!) and the occasional soundtrack flourishes (I am a sucker for Elliot Goldenthal, whose Alien3 soundtrack might be one of the most underrated scores ever, in terms of merging big sound with baroque visuals) and eye candy, but found the whole experience not quite as immersive or profound as one would expect from the final play written by William Shakespeare. Dumbed down is not the phrase to completely describe the film, rather emphasis on many things that are not as important to the story telling or overall experience of the thing. Taymor is a good enough magician (kind of like Prospera) but when she distracts you with her left hand, she fails to do anything with the right. The Tempest is a Turn without a Prestige.