A dream cast imprisoned
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, December 17, 2010
From one perspective, filmmaker Julie Taymor's "The Tempest" is a kind of highbrow "Harry Potter" film. Stuffed with unimpeachable performances by some of Britain's most interesting actors - Helen Mirren, Alfred Molina, Tom Conti, Alan Cumming, Russell Brand, Ben Whishaw, Felicity Jones and others - and boasting a plot that's heavy on the magical shenanigans, this pretty and poetic adaptation of Shakespeare's play is a fantasia for the smart set, a literary novelty for anyone who wants to have fun without giving up food for thought. On that score, at least, it delivers, in spades.
More's the pity, then, that it doesn't feel very much like a movie. It opens with a shot of a storm-tossed ship at sea that looks like it was filmed in a splash pool, with pails of water being tossed from just off camera.
Taymor, of course, made her mark in theater, with wildly original stagings of such spectacles as "The Lion King." Her specialty is puppetry, with performers playing, say, giraffes in such a way that you see both the actor and the animal at the same time.
So it's no surprise that "The Tempest" - which famously features both an incorporeal sprite, Ariel, and a hideous monster, Caliban - calls its otherworldly creatures into being not with CGI but with heavy theatrical makeup and dancelike movement.
As Caliban, whom the Bard described as "not honour'd with a human shape," the Benin-born Djimon Hounsou is a kind of mud-caked primitive. The brown-skinned character is very much human, however, which lends the film a subtle (and somewhat distracting) racial subtext, considering Caliban's mistreatment at the hands of the otherwise all-white cast. Similarly, Whishaw's Ariel - a role that calls for the character to materialize and then vaporize periodically, not to mention perform much of the play's magic - is rendered as a kind of androgynous punk pixie. With his thickly gelled hair, all-white body paint and little else, he comes across like a naked street mime.
They're great character designs . . . for the stage. On screen, they end up making the movie feel smaller and more claustrophobic than it should, despite it's photogenic, big-as-all-outdoors Hawaiian setting.
On the plus side? The play's poetry, which here takes center stage, and rightly so. Boasting some of Shakespeare's most beautiful language, "The Tempest" more than survives Taymor's tinkering with the text.
That's thanks in no small measure to Mirren, as the exiled Italian noblewoman-turned-wizard Prospera (a part that's normally played by a man). From her opening scene, in which she conjures up a storm at sea in order to punish those who betrayed her, to her ultimate forgiveness of her enemies, Mirren tears into both the ferocious and the tender sides of the part. It makes one wonder why the role isn't played by a woman more often. The gender reversal lends especially rich new layers of meaning to Prospera's relationship with her daughter, Miranda (Jones). Brand and Molina also make indelible impressions as buffoonish drunkards Trinculo and Stephano.
"The Tempest" has always been one of Shakespeare's trickiest plays thematically. Its dual themes of revenge and reconciliation almost cancel each other out. More than anything else, however, it's also a play about playing. Near the end, Mirren gets to deliver her character's most famous speech, the one about how "We are such stuff as dreams are made on." It's a reminder to the audience that they've just watched a mind game, and indeed that life itself is just a dream.
Given the staginess of Taymor's stubbornly uncinematic tale, it's an unnecessary reminder. Most plays-turned-movies try to open things up. Taymor still thinks like a theater director, ending up with a "Tempest" that takes place in a teapot.
Contains nudity, suggestive material and frightening images.