NYFF 2010: “The Tempest”

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The Tempest
Directed by Julie Taymor

Julie Taymor is incontestably an established theatrical director. Having an international education in the arts, working in such popular venues as Broadway and the Metropolitan Opera, and nabbing awards for her vast classical productions, Taymor has proven time and time again that she can win one over the beast that is the stage. Unfortunately, film has eluded such conquest for her so far. The Tempest is simply a bad film, because it’s crippled by a director that cannot see past its original form. Instead of adapting the play to fit the big screen, Taymor forces elements of film into the play, where it comes off as forced and poorly fabricated.

The hype conjuring up to its release has rested highly on Helen Mirren’s performance as Prospero, a part more commonly portrayed through a male perspective (now suitably named Prospera). Mirren certainly has the chops to compete with her paternal peers playing the ousted duchess, forsaken to live on a barren island, while overprotecting her daughter (played by Felicity Jones) after accusations of witchcraft are pinned up against her. Only moments into the film do we realize that this gender alteration is actually a relatively minor alteration. The fact that Mirren can play par to her male counterparts is only that – a par level performance, bringing nothing more to her character or story.  After the novelty wears off, we are left with the dried bones of what inevitably is a butchered “moon calf” of film and stage.

The film opens twelve years into her banishment,  using magic and aid in an epicene spirit named Ariel (Ben Whishaw), manipulating those who scheme against her, including the King of Naples (David Strathairn), and Prospera and Alonzo’s brothers (Chris Cooper and Alan Cumming). Two stammering drunks (Alfred Molina and Russell Brand) and the slave Caliban (Djimon Hounsou) also find their way under the confines of Prospera’s sorcery. By the end, Prospera’s daughter finds love in Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) and Prospera learns to let go, forgive, and move on with life.

The first mistake of the film is that it takes Shakespeare’s source material too literally, from the language spoken to the melodramatic performances. Aside from the obvious pronominal switches to their feminine counterparts, the dialogue of the script is taken verbatim from the play. From the young couple’s excruciatingly love-drunk quips to Prospera’s never-ending capper of a monologue, the story comes straight from The Tempest‘s mouth. Perfectly okay for a faithful reproduction of a stage play, but on film it becomes quite heavy handed, stale and plain old boring.

As a filmic approach, Taymor’s use of close-up shots to encapsulate raw facial expressions is sort of an oxymoronic task. To find truth and sincere emotion in over-the-top performances, is similar to that of trying to find texture in something intangible. It’s just unrealistic, along with the CGI used to heighten the visual artistry of what is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most visual plays. From the over-use of Ariel’s blurry entrails to the fire on the backs of demonic dogs, the use of computer graphics innately cheapens the film, reversing its intentions by forcing the viewer out of the context of the film.

A positive element, and what of which should have completely made CGI obsolete, are the immaculate practical effects. The unrecognizable landscapes of Hawaii mimic the characters harmoniously, as the twisting jungle reflect the wandering of the drunks, and the arid volcano that of the distant sorceress. Wide open shots of scenery give the illusion of a grand stage. Still imagery provide the pop needed for a visual celebration.  The title card, with its prominent font blanketing a desolate sandcastle as it washes away from the rain, washes away all prospects of an intriguing film along with it.  Astrological symbols, vibrating on a moonlit sky, give the film the surreal nuances needed to be considered a production of artistic beauty. The costume design is immaculate, in particular that of Caliban. The details of this monstrous mongrel, from the claylike crackles of his earthy skin to the bleached moon mark on his face, are strikingly original.

It is only evident that what makes the film intriguing to watch is that of which directly comes out of the stage. The film works as a competent stage production, because it’s backed by a competent stage director. When all said and done, The Tempest will do fine. Critics and intellectuals alike will gobble it up simply because it’s Shakespeare, which is a shame.  Modern remakes and adaptations (Watchmen and Let Me In first come to mind) get slandered often for being too reverent toward their source materials, but slap on ratty computer graphics and a gender flip to a mediocre classic, and suddenly it becomes the greatest thing since sliced bread. Sure The Tempest will get plenty of Oscar nods, perhaps cinematography and costume design being rightful contenders, but anything else will be downright criminal.

Christopher Clemente

Visit the official website for the 48th New York Film Festival

5 Comments
  1. Albert says

    Does this reviewer really expect the scriptwriter to add his own dialogue to Shakespeare’s play? OF COURSE all the dialogue is by Shakespeare; the same is true of the 1936 “Romeo and Juliet” and “As You Like It”, as well as the Olivier “Henry V”, “Hamlet”, “Richard III”, and “Othello”, as well as MGM’s 1953 “Julius Caesar” , and Branagh’s “Henry V”, “Much Ado About Nothing”, and “Hamlet”– I could go on and on! What’s the point of calling it a film version of a Shakespeare play if the words aren’t Shakespeare’s?

    (Sorry for the capital letters, but I don’t know how to do italics on a site like this.)

  2. Jane says

    Great review.

  3. Joe says

    In what part of the review does Chris compare Watchmen to Shakespeare ?
    He didn’t. He simply mentioned two other popular adaptations. This is a good review.

    The Tempest is not a good movie and Chris did a great job in explaining why it fails.

    Throwing out an insult at the end like child… really that seems rather immature. I would think you were the child.

  4. David says

    Well, either you just missed something or didn’t do your research. Chris Cooper plays Prospero(a)’s brother. Alan Cumming plays Sebastian, Alonzo’s brother. I haven’t seen the film but this review is not helpful considering you misunderstood the relationships clearly stated in the text and then compare Watchmen to Shakespeare…child, please.

    1. Albert says

      He was talking about “Watchmen” as a remake, but not as a remake of Shakespeare.

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