Thursday, December 16, 2010

Waterlogged: Julie Taymor's The Tempest

Helen Mirren and Felicity Jones in The Tempest
In the Shakespearean canon, The Tempest, reportedly his last written play, stands out as one of his weakest works. It’s essentially a simple tale about Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, who’s been exiled to a deserted island for over a decade with his daughter, Miranda. As The Tempest opens, by use of magic, Prospero has stranded his enemies – who usurped his post – and some others, on various parts of the island. There, they endeavour to make their way back to civilization even as Prospero instructs his child on life and love, and commands the resentful half-man/half-monster Caliban and the loyal sprite Ariel to torment their reluctant guests. It all builds to, not a climax, exactly, but a mild confrontation between the parties concerned, and then a flat and dull happy ending. Slapdash, superficial and thin, The Tempest, even when staged well, as it was at Stratford this past summer (see my review here), cannot surmount its many failings and shortcomings. But when you let a talentless filmmaker like Julie Taymor (Titus, Frida) tackle the project, the results are considerably worse.

Chris Cooper and Alan Cumming
Taymor, attempting to put her own stamp on the play, has given The Tempest a sex-change and a feminist veneer. Prospero is now Prospera (Helen Mirren), an alchemist, who after her husband, the Duke of Milan, died was accused of witchcraft and, only through the efforts of her loyal retainer Gonzalo (Tom Conti), managed to escape certain death along with her daughter, Miranda (Felicity Jones). The island is still the setting of choice, but it’s Prospera’s brother, not the Duke’s male sibling, Antonio (Chris Cooper), who is instrumental in her exile. The rest of the characters, including Naple’s King Alonso (David Strathairn), his son Prince Ferdinand (a dull Reeve Carney) as well as Caliban (Djimon Hounsou) and Ariel (Ben Wishaw) are the same as in the original.

Director Julie Taymor
Casting Mirren in the lead is not the problem with The Tempest. I generally prefer Shakespeare played straight, but revisions to the Bard, as was evident in Kenneth Branagh’s frequently brilliant 19th century update of Hamlet (1996), can succeed on their own merits. And Mirren, of course, is a huge talent, who would not and does not disgrace herself in the role of Prospera. The film’s difficulties have much more to do with a director who cannot settle on one tone – the film veers erratically from low comedy to high drama to fantastical sequences and back again – and has not the faintest idea of how to build a coherent story to save her life. (Comparatively, Paul Mazursky's Tempest (1982), his lame modern take on the play, was at least tonally consistent.)  It doesn’t help that Taymor, who also scripted the film, is working with inferior source material, a fact that only serves to highlight her inadequacies behind the camera.

The Tempest is an annoying film that rarely comes to cinematic life and does not do justice to Shakespeare’s rich dialogue. Even in The Tempest, his words display their usual richness, best exemplified in the famous quote, "such stuff as dreams are made on." In Taymor’s hands, however, most of them fail to land gently on the viewers’ ears, and the rest are drowned under the film’s pulsating (and anachronistic) hard rock/horror movie score, laid on with a trowel by Eliot Goldenthal (Catch Me If You Can). Goldenthal is Taymor’s real life partner, and creates the music for all her movies.

Russell Brand, Alfred Molina, and Djimon Hounsou
As the film lurches to and fro, like a half-dead golem, the actors try to play catch up, with decidedly mixed results. As with Titus (1999), Taymor’s overwrought adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus – wherein Jessica Lange somehow managed to carve out a good performance as Tamora, Queen of the Goths – some of the cast in The Tempest do decent work, despite having to suffer Taymor’s (mis)direction. In addition to Mirren, who is only intermittently on screen – Prospera/Prospero is not a large part – Alfred Molina as the buffoonish jester Stephano, Alan Cumming as Alonso’s brother Sebastian, the man who would like to be king, and Wishaw as the otherworldly Ariel come out the best. Others, notably Felicity Jones as the na├»ve Miranda and Tom Conti as the foolish and talkative Gonzalo, are fine, too. But Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond) overdoes things as the slave Caliban, bringing, I hate to say it, almost a minstrel quality to his role. (That could be Taymor’s deliberate commentary on how a slave has to act to get by, but she’s such an inept filmmaker that I honestly can’t say if that was the effect she wanted to achieve.) And Chris Cooper, as Prospera’s scheming brother Antonio, is distinctly uncomfortable uttering Shakespeare’s dialogue. Fellow American Strathairn, at least gives an adequate if undistinguished performance as Alonso. Most irritating – and irritant is the operative word here – is Russell Brand (Get Him to the Greek) as the jester Trinculo, who ‘acts’ as if he’s walked in from a Monty Python movie, though I’d venture that John Cleese and company would never have hired someone as vapid and one note as Brand. His appearance in the movie defines painful.

The only blessing of this movie is that it’s not as risible as Across the Universe (2007), Taymor's worst film and the one where she was allowed to give free rein to her imagination. In it, she conjured up an idiotic and embarrassingly literal interpretation of the Beatles’ terrific music which overlaid a really dumb portrait of ‘60s America. The Tempest, like Titus and Frida (2002), her bland take on artist Frida Khalo, is at least governed by some narrative and/or historical structure, which forces her to tone down her penchant for florid excess. Taymor may very well be a great stage director – I’ve only ever heard good things about her direction of The Lion King – but theatre is not cinema and The Tempest is just further proof that she is distinctly unsuited to moviemaking.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He will be teaching a course on film genre this winter at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute.


  1. did you really just write that ms. taymor is a talentless film maker?
    mr. schwartzberg, i disagree.
    this is a tragedy, to write something so horrific and rather school-boyish.
    we have come to the point where individuals must not pay attention to such disgraceful faux-critique.
    you like your shakespeare "straight" as you say.
    i like my critics respectful
    regardless of your final analysis, years of work goes into making a film, and there is always something of value in it, regardless of one's preconceived ideas

  2. Shlomo Schwartzberg replies:

    Having sat through all four of Ms. Taymor's negligible movies, I feel I can safely call her a talentless filmmaker. As I said in my final paragraph, I am only reviewing her work on screen, not her theatrical ouevre, which I have not seen. But I am not sure why calling a spade a spade re: Ms. Taymor's (lack of) talent is a faux critique. It is not my job to be respectful of anyone if I don't think their work warrants it. As for your suggestion that there is something of value in all films, I respectfully disagree. That is no more the case with films as it is with music, theatre or books. It is the job of a responsible and knowledgeable critic to point out the value or lack thereof of whatever he or she is reviewing, which is what we do on Critics at Large. If you feel my language in my review is intemperate, so be it, but I would take your criticisms more seriously if you had at least attached your name to your post and not hidden behind the cloak of anonymity. If I can put my name in front of my review, I would expect my critics to do the same.

  3. I agree. I also saw "The Lion King" on Broadway, and except for some pretty pictures, it was nothing special. I would much rather have watched the movie.

    I've hated Julie Taymor since before it was cool, for all the reasons that you state--the woman can't tell a story or pick a tone to save her life. Let her design art museums or something...:)

  4. I've also found myself variously disappointed by Miss Taymor's works. I saw her Lion King on Broadway -- bored me. That I could live with, but of all her films, I think only Frida is potentially decent.

    Despite having some of the most amazing casts you can assemble, her movies are awful. The performances were the only good thing in Titus. The rest of the film was painful. I couldn't even finish watching Across the Universe. It's a shame: her movies always sound so interesting in concept. Her execution is terrible.