Dec 10, 2010
This year marks the 400 anniversary of this beautiful and last play by William Shakespeare. There have been a couple of film versions of it, most notably Prospero's Books by Peter Greenaway, and Tempest, a fun modern adaptation by Paul Mazursky. The latest one, by Julie Taymor, is, literally and in the worst possible sense, the Disney version. An appalling mess.
The Tempest is a strange and lovely play about the magical powers of creativity, about the illusion of art, which contains truth in it. When you see it on a stage, the illusion is created by the words and by the clunky sets. You have to imagine a ship capsizing in a storm, you have to imagine you are on an island with a magician, his daughter and a sprite that flies around creating mischief. The concrete limitations of the physical stage force your imagination to take flight. The magic is in the words and in whatever the staging conjures up to help you see that Ariel can fly and Caliban is a strange creature.
Now that we have CGI and 3D and whatnot, the temptation to literalize the magic is irrestistible. Well, it should be resisted. Or at least, imitating Prospero, its magic should be used strategically, judiciously and to immense effect. Taymor's version of The Tempest is drowned, overwhelmed and weakened by special effects. Most of them are very well made but horribly cheesy and heavy handed. My heart sank from the very first scene of the play, a literal rendering of the ship in the storm, where people scream unintelligibly at each other. Doesn't bode well not to understand a word at the beginning of a Shakespeare play.
As I was watching this movie, not only was I pining for a stage with clunky ropes and cardboard ships and creaking floors, I thought of Dogville, by Lars Von Trier. He does the opposite. You walk in thinking you were going to see a movie, but he creates a town somewhere in the United States on what looks like a stage. The entire movie takes place in this stage and if at first you are bewildered and want your money back, soon you get used to the artifice and the illusion works. The setting makes the story harsher and more discomfiting. Julie Taymor totally misses Shakespeare's point: that art and imagination render illusion concrete in our minds, and if we are fully engaged, they become true and real and make us feel wonder and sadness and joy: they transform us. Here, the effects work to undermine the magic. When the magic becomes literal, the play loses its transformative power. It doesn't help that they are a hodgepodge, used without restraint. Some motion graphics sequences are very pretty, some scenes are beautiful, as when the shipwrecks emerge from the sea fully perfect and dry, while other stuff looks like it was borrowed from The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the recent Disney dud with Nicholas Cage. It is horrible.
Shakespeare isn't a sacred text that has to be read to the Elizabethan letter. That is why Richard III can be set in totalitarian 20th Century times, and Hamlet in every age since it was written, and it allows for all kinds of explorations of the text that resonate with the contemporary audience. This time, Taymor decided to change Prospero's gender to a female. However, there should be a good reason, something that adds depth to our understanding of the play, other than the director is a woman and identifies with Prospero, which seems to me like an ego trip. Helen Mirren, who could fart in iambic pentameter and do it majestically, is perfectly suited to play any role ever written, for man, woman or child, but in my view, the changing of the gender dilutes the power of the drama, for it is not the same thing for a banished king to raise a daughter in barren exile, than for a queen. It is much harder for a man, and this adds enormous depth and tension to Prospero's relationship with his daughter Miranda. Shakespeare was a Freudian and he knew what he was talking about. Miranda is a teenage girl who only knows two males: her father and Caliban, who tried to rape her. Can you imagine the parental angst of Prospero? The male/female dynamic provides important contrast. If Prospero is a mother instead of a father, a lot of that rich, subconscious subtext is lost. But that is not the worst, since at least we get to see Helen Mirren do justice to the text. I will reserve the worst for last.
The cast is annoyingly uneven. Tom Conti and Alfred Molina and to a slightly lesser extent, Alan Cumming (wonderful silent, hammy when he speaks) are wonderful as Gonzalo and Trinculo. David Strathairn is his usual melancholy self, and Chris Cooper, that quintessentially American dude, whether he is an FBI agent, or a redneck or a cowboy, just does not make sense to me in here. Ariel is played by Ben Whishaw, who I am sure was born reciting Shakespeare, but he lacks the playfulness and the lightness of spirit that Ariel should have. I imagine Ariel's character something like ice skater Johnny Weir, with that kind of androgynous, mischievous sparkle. Caliban is played by Djimon Hounsou, and as marvelous as he is to look at, he lacks the menace, he lacks the resentment, he lacks the imperious childish malice that Caliban should have. Caliban has some great lines, and Hounsou muddles them. I'm a snob and I believe that very few non-British actors can deliver Shakespeare well. Not all the Brits can do it either, but those who do it well make it sound like music and like normal language at the same time. The very worst person in the cast is Russell Brand, playing Trinculo, a comic character. Here is a man who can only be funny when he plays the Russell Brand character, which is basically a pompous asshole. Playing Trinculo as an extension of himself, he is asked to mug and do slapsticky stuff, which is not his forte and he is excruciatingly unfunny. The comic scenes which should be delightful are just painful, and not even Alfred Molina can deliver them from the heavyhandedness of the director. The two young lovers at the center of the play are so unexciting, so boringly innocent one can barely care about their wondrous love (one can be innocent without being cloying and boring. Look at Sally Hawkins in Happy Go Lucky).
The Magnificent Arepa hated the movie so much that she decided to concentrate on the good aspects, so she focused on the costumes by the incredible Sandy Powell (I'm betting Oscar on this one). Some of the music, by Taymor's husband Elliot Goldenthal, is very cool, particularly the melodies of Ariel's songs, but like the rest of the movie, some of it is bombastic and overwrought. The entire movie swings wildly between a few great creative choices, like the location in Hawaii, Sandy Powell's costumes, some of the photography, some of the songs; and astounding indelicacy and cheesy vulgarity.
But the absolute worst is the absconding with the epilogue of the play, which is one of the most beautiful, most moving things ever written for the stage. At the end of the play, after order is restored, when Miranda is married off to that loksh*, when Ariel is finally released, Prospero breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience, releasing us from his spell, as Shakespeare is from his, and asking us to release him (the magician, the author and the actor) with our applause. I don't even know how to articulate the amazing trick between reality and illusion that Shakespeare performs here. It is a total coup de theatre. If in the theater this doesn't give you a shiver or move you to tears, either you have no soul, or whoever is in charge has no clue. Well, in the movie part of this speech is delivered by Mirren and the other is rendered in song. Having bet the entire project on making the magic literal, now they can't take it back and say it was all magic, because that would be redundant. Hence, this entire movie misses the point of the play. It does nothing to break the spell that has not being cast upon us.