Director: Julie Taymor
The Tempest opens with an image of a tidy little sandcastle crumbling underneath a rainstorm. It’s an apt image, as The Tempest frequently threatens to crumble underneath director Julie Taymor’s overambition. Not even William Shakespeare’s beautiful prose can save it.
The castle is actually being held by Miranda (Felicity Jones), and the rain comes from the tempest being conjured by the mischevous spirit Ariel (an eerie Ben Whishaw), as ordered by Miranda’s sorceress mother Prospera (Helen Mirren). In the play (Shakespeare’s last, before his death in 1516), Prospera was Prospero, a man, but the gender change is justified by a fiery performance from Mirren. Prospera conjures the storm to sink a ship carrying some of the Milanese royalty that banished Prospera and Miranda to the island they call home. The Milanese, royalty and servants alike, are washed ashore separately. Miranda finds Prince Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) on one shore, and falls for him immediately. Jones is forgettable, but Carney is deathly dull, thus rendering their romance feeling more like Twilight than Romeo and Juliet. On another part of the island are found King Alonso (David Strathairn), Gonzalo (Tom Conti), Sebastian (Alan Cumming) and Antonio (Chris Cooper). All are great actors, so to see them forced to act off against each other with too little screentime is a great waste of their talent.
On another part of the island, servants Trinculo (Russell Brand) and Stephano (Alfred Molina) are washed up and encounter Prospera’s slave, the scarred and warped Calaban (Djimon Hounsou). Brand and Molina’s giddiness provide a much needed boot up the backside to the pace, which threatens to grind to a halt at times. Meanwhile, Hounsou gives the best performance of all the cast, a wonderful mix of spleen, naivete and outstanding make-up. The Tempest’s production design is immaculate to a fault. Sandy Powell’s Oscar-nominated costumes and Mark Friedburg’s sets are a little too polished, lending The Tempest a stagey, artificial look. Despite Stuart Dryburgh’s beautiful lensing and Elliot Goldenthal’s punk-like score, there’s little to dispel the idea that these are sets on a studio backlot.
Taymor’s script barely deviates from Shakespeare’s text, which makes the film feel all the more staged. Flashbacks and exposition are all well on stage, but film thrives on kinetic fizz. Whilst Taymor clearly relishes the freedom of the screen, her visual flourishes are so over the top that you find yourself wishing for something more tangible. Taymor’s adaptation of Titus was allowed to be OTT by virtue of being an OTT stageplay, but The Tempest demands a slightly more subtle touch. It’s both visceral and vacuous, neither straying from the text nor adding anything to it. The Tempest has too many well-placed elements to be an out-and-out bad film, but it’s definitely an underwhelming one.