Film Review: “The Tempest”

by Jason LeRoy on December 10, 2010

Helen Mirren, Felicity Jones, and Djimon Hounsou in Julie Taymor's THE TEMPEST. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon – © 2010 Tempest Production, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

starring: Helen Mirren, Felicity Jones, Djimon Hounsou, Ben Whishaw, Russell Brand, Alfred Molina, David Strathairn, Alan Cumming, Chris Cooper, Reeve Carney, Tom Conti

director: Julie Taymor

MPAA: PG-13 for some nudity, suggestive content and scary images

The Tempest is one of the few iconic Shakespeare plays that lacks a definitive (or at least definitively high-profile) film adaptation. It has been done at least three times, each to highly impressionistic or interpretive effect, by directors Derek Jarman, Paul Mazursky, and Peter Greenaway. And now we have Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, which is arguably the most faithful to Shakespeare’s original text while still introducing at least one major change (the exiled duke Prospero has become exiled duchess Prospera).

So do we finally have a definitive film adaptation of The Tempest? Definitively, no. Perhaps in the hands of a more fluid cinematic storyteller than Taymor, who has yet to tell a consistently compelling story (she’s previously directed such wildly uneven films as Titus, Frida, and Across the Universe, and is responsible for Broadway’s The Lion King and the disastrous current musical production of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark). While it has a few redeeming qualities in its talented cast, Taymor’s Tempest is an energy-zapping literary trainwreck.

Confession time: before seeing this film, I’d never read The Tempest. Upon arriving at the theater, I was thinking, “I’ll probably recognize the story after a while. I was an English major, after all!” I kept waiting for that sense of Shakespearean familiarity to sink in. But it never did. (Forgive me, I studied English at Kent State University.) So, this was the first time I encountered this story in its (relative) entirety. And please, I beg you: don’t make the same mistake I did. I’d recommend at least passing familiarity with the plot and characters before seeing this; otherwise, you’ll be in the dark.

So, with that in mind, here’s the best I could make of the plot:

Prospera (Helen Mirren, giving an Oscar performance in a Razzie film) is some kind of deposed royalty living on a magical island – perhaps from Lost? – with her daughter, Miranda (Felicity Jones). As the film begins, she appears to be commanding a storm that’s causing great havoc on a ship at sea. The men on board wash safely ashore because Prospera uses her personal fairy slave, Ariel (Ben Whishaw, alternating nakedly between male and female body parts and reminiscent of Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals cover) to control the storm and rescue the passengers.

Upon arriving on the island, the passengers break into three groups. Group one has David Strathairn, Alan Cumming, Chris Cooper, and Tom Conti as scheming royals somehow linked to Prospera being unfairly exiled. They’re bad guys…? Strathairn’s hottie son, Prince Ferdinand (Reeve Carney, currently starring as Spider-Man on Broadway), meets Miranda and immediately strikes up a romance with her. Why not. And there is “comic relief” in the form of Trinculo (Russell Brand) and Stephano (Alfred Molina), a pair of bumbling old-timey Shakespeare drunks who trick Caliban (Djimon Hounsou), a character I can only uncomfortably describe as “a native island savage,” into following them around and praising them as kings. Good times. Good prank, you guys.

Meanwhile, Prospera is sittin’ up in her room, fussing with mirrors and magnifying glasses and building what appears to be a comically oversized ant burner, making poor Ariel fly his naked ass all over the island (poor Ariel = lucky us), tricking the various wanderers with all kinds of supernatural subterfuge while Prospera gets ready to pwn them. But then, instead of pwning them, she takes the Jenny Aniston route and just kind of says, “Hey, what you guys did was pretty uncool,” and they’re like, “Our bad,” and I guess it’s resolved?

It is hard for me to fully articulate how dramatically limp this film is. I’d estimate that there were 20-25 walkouts at my screening in the first half, which is the most I’ve ever seen. It took the suppression of every instinct in my being to remain in my seat, and I may have died a little in the process. Taymor understands spectacle (although the visual effects look cheap, and combined with Elliot Goldenthal’s instantly dated electric guitar-infused score, suggest that you’re watching an ’80s rock opera about pirates), but she fails to grasp the concept of dramatic momentum. I was begging the film to make me care about something that was happening, or at least to stop embarrassing itself so much. No dice.

The actors try their damnedest. As always, Mirren is utter perfection, a master class unto herself. Veteran character actors Strathairn, Cumming, Cooper, Conti, and Molina all do the best they can under the circumstances. Felicity Jones is engaging and charming as Miranda, while Reeve Carney mostly just conveys the prettiness of his face as Prince Ferdinand. And oh, poor Djimon Hounsou. What a regrettable performance. There are many moments in this film where you feel almost embarrassed for the actors committing themselves so completely to Taymor’s ludicrous vision, but none are quite as cringe-inducing as Hounsou.

On the other hand, there is Russell Brand. While some reviews have panned his performance for being too broad and goofy, my audience and I viewed him as a foppish water fountain in a seemingly endless expanse of self-serious desert. He is just inherently funny, and effortlessly brings that humor to his line readings. The “performance” is just Russell Brand reading Shakespeare–nothing more, nothing less–and that was more than enough to make him the audience favorite.

When Brand or Mirren are on the big screen (which they’ll share again in the upcoming remake of Arthur; perhaps you’ve seen this saucy picture of them on set), the film becomes bearable. Otherwise, this is one Tempest that should have stayed in its teapot.

RIYL: Julie Taymor’s other films; every Shakespeare film adaptation regardless of quality; Helen Mirren or Russell Brand (but wait for the DVD so you can fast-forward to their scenes)

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