The Tempest (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
15Sep/110

The Tempest (2011)

Taymor's reputation as a polarizing stylistic presence will forever quell any notion of her as a spinstress of exquisite yarns.  It doesn't help she works in the age of adaptations, bringing The Lion King to Broadway with great success and getting her start in film by adapting Titus, a Shakespeare work bathed in blood and debauchery.

As film is a visual medium this isn't a bad thing, but means she's entirely at the mercy of her ambition.  Either she drenches the screen in excess or drowns in the weight of her dreams.  In success, she creates Across the Universe - in failure, The Tempest.

This film does not seem created by the Taymor I know.  I love her big heart and willingness to show such naked bravado with big colors and flashy sequences onscreen.  But success landed her the Broadway debacle Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark and seems to leave her too tired to bring any of her normal flair to her initial passion, Shakespeare.

The Tempest is one of Shakespeare's final plays and, I must be honest, one of my least favorite.  The play always struck me as one last fable before he retired, lacking in a lot of the complexity and danger of his earlier works without the light touch or inspired wordplay.  This is still Shakespeare, though, and even something I find to be a "lesser" work should still find some sort of life on the silver screen but does not happen.

To wit, the most daring choices in the film begin and end with the casting.  Taymor tries to play with gender a bit, casting the wizened Prospero with Helen Mirren and redubbing her as Prospera.  Also interesting is the spritely Ariel, played by Ben Whishaw and modified with computers to possess multiple sets of genitalia and whisks about as a phantom, tied to no set of rules of gender.

Mirren is the only stable anchor in the enterprise, but she's just as sturdy as ever.

The problem is this casting bears not on the messages present in The Tempest.  The core story had no strong female characters and rebranding Prospero as a woman does not change the tone or language present in the story.  The Tempest is now a patriarchal story in women's clothing, something we might have seen in the second wave of feminist film production, not early into the new millennium.

A few of the other casting choices range from dubious to the somewhat funny.  The dubious lies with Reeve Carney as Ferdinand, recently shipwrecked son of the king and doing little to rise his energy above "tired emo rocker".  His hair and weeping eyes are at complete odds with the bright and sexy Felicity Jones as Miranda, and not in an "opposites attract" sort of way since chemistry is needed for an electric outcome.  Then there's Russell Brand and Alfred Molina, who at least try to liven up the surroundings, but whose scenes live or die depending on how much mugging you can take from Brand.

The success of the Brand/Molina pairing highlight just how dull the entire proceedings are.  They're surrounding by special effects that, at first, seem like a charming reminder of the stage.  Then they lose that theater magic and just look like they are, cheap CGI.  In spite of Mirren's performance, which is quite fine, everyone looks as though they were anticipating the magic to be happening around them, perhaps in post-production.  But the staging is as lifeless as the performers and Taymor operates with none of her usual high emotions.

A comedian as brash as Brand is well-suited to Taymor's usual level of emotion but as amused as I was he seems like he stumbled in drunk from another movie.

Where are the children making war or tired soldiers carrying the Statue of Liberty?  Where are the big images?  There's nothing visually daring about The Tempest, it's mostly set on an idyllic island with little in the way of interest and what few sets Taymor opts to use are so heavily indebted to German Expressionist construction their simplistic taking on those ideals makes the ode simultaneously obvious and dull.

Finally, the matter of the soundtrack, which was so off-putting I would have preferred to watch the movie mute at points.  Aside from the casting, the music is the only other area where Taymor seems to have taken a chance but failed.  Some moments, such as the smooth jazz which comes with Brand's introduction marking him as some kind of mystical beat poet, provide a fun air.  But too many times Taymor comes crashing in with a loud rock score, completely at odds with the gentility of the images, or bombastic strings while everyone sits around.

This is a perplexing and dull film from someone who used to hold her heart up for everyone to see.  Because of her recent troubles I wonder if Taymor made this out of obligation, almost as a way of saying "See?  I can still do it!"  I want the Taymor who can make me breathless, not the one who instills the rhythmic intonations of sleep.

The Tempest (2011)
Directed and screenplay by Julie Taymor.
Starring Helen Mirren.

Posted by Andrew

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