Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Julie Taymor
Stars: Helen Mirren, Ben Whishaw, Felicity Jones, Djimon Hounsou, Alfred Molina, Russell Brand, Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, Tom Conti, Reeve Carney.
Julie Taymor has a formidable reputation amongst theatre directors, particularly for her work on the live action Broadway adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King. Even her few forays into film have been imaginative and bold works. Her treatment of Titus, one of the most bloody of Shakespeare’s plays, was powerful and engrossing, and the musical drama Across The Universe was visually quite stunning. Although her reputation has taken something of a battering with her involvement in the flawed and failed Broadway production of Spiderman, she still knows how to bring plenty of visual flourishes and style to the screen.
Her latest film is The Tempest, a lavish reimagining of Shakespeare’s last and lesser play about sorcery, love, treachery and revenge. Taymor uses CGI effects to vividly illustrate the more supernatural elements of the drama, although with mixed results. Taymor’s most obvious influence on the material is in changing the gender of the central character. Thus Prospero, the exiled Milanese duke, becomes the overbearing Prospera, which adds a whole new dynamic to the play. Helen Mirren, one of the grand dames of British theatre, essays the character with her usual commanding presence and her innate command of Shakespeare’s language.
Prospera lives in exile on a remote island, accompanied only by her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones), and two capricious servants, the magical and androgynous sprite Ariel (Ben Whishaw) and displaced native Caliban (Djimon Hounsou). Prospera magically arranges the wreck of the ship carrying the powerful King Alonso (David Strathairn). The king and his son Prince Ferdinand (Reeve Carney, from the Spiderman musical) are separated during the tumultuous storm, and wander around the island unaware that the other survived. The king is accompanied by his spiritual adviser Gonzalo (Tom Conti), and his treacherous lieutenant Antonio (Chris Cooper), who orchestrated Prospera’s downfall. Prospera seizes this opportunity to exact her own revenge on Antonio, and orchestrate a romance between Miranda and Ferdinand.
However, the subplot involving Alfred Molina and a miscast Russell Brand as a pair of clowns also stranded on the island, bring some bawdy humour to proceedings, but their presence eventually becomes tedious.
Given her reputation Taymor has managed to assemble an ensemble cast, although the performances she elicits are a little wayward. Mirren brings a ferocious quality to her performance as Prospera and she easily dominates the film. Jones brings a naivete and vulnerability to her role as Miranda. Strathairn brings a weary resignation to his performance, while Cooper fills his character with an understated menace. Hounsou though is rather flat, and his presence, which is meant to highlight colonial tensions, is remarkably misjudged.
The Tempest was largely shot on Hawaii, and veteran Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography of some of the harsh, volcanic landscape adds to the film’s mood. The production design, especially of Prospera’s cavernous lair, is also quite stunning and Sandy Powell’s costumes are quite fetching. But ultimately this is a rather bland, uninspired and uneven adaptation that lacks her usual intelligent and richly cinematic style.
There have been other more inspired interpretations of Shakespeare’s play, including the 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet and Peter Greenaway’s enigmatic but visually stylish Prospero’s Books, with John Gielgud. This rather staid adaptation of The Tempest was badly received by critics when it premiered at Venice, and it is a film that will struggle to find an appreciative audience when released in cinemas.
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