Friday, March 18, 2011

Academy of the Underrated: The Tempest (2010)

Tempest poster and IMPAwards link
I can’t help but be in Julie Taymor’s corner. Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark may be shaping up to be a bigger catastrophe than anything in Broadway’s history, but it takes inspiration to stage that kind of failure, and Taymor has an imagination and ambition that I think more filmmakers ought to have. The Tempest puts that imagination on vivid display, in a bold but surprisingly straightforward adaptation of Shakespeare’s final classic. It’s received tepid reviews, but I can’t quite figure why, since there’s not a lot wrong with it.

The one major change is that Prospero is now Prospera, and is played by Helen Mirren. She’s a former duchess, exiled from Venice for practicing magic, now living alone with her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones). With the aid of the sprite Ariel (Ben Whishaw) she has used her powers to wreck a ship containing King Alonso (David Straitharn), the man who exiled her, and washed all the passengers ashore alive, planning an elaborate revenge for the injustice visited on her. Drunks Trinculo and Stephano (Russell Brand and Alfred Molina respectively) join up with the strange island native Caliban (Djimon Honsou) on a deluded ramble to try and depose the island’s master, Alonso and his cohorts (Chris Cooper, Alan Cumming, and Tom Conti) make their way believing his son to be dead, while his not-dead-at-all son (Reeve Carney) falls in love with Miranda.

The major flaw of this film is the same as that of the play, namely that the plot is all over the place; the characters amble uncertainly towards their appointed points in the story, and are walled off from each other until near the end. As such it can feel a little formless, and there isn’t a whole lot of forward momentum. The various sections of it are entertaining in and of themselves, but it does go slack at times.

As one might imagine, the film’s major asset is Helen Mirren. It’s a sign of how natural she is in the role that it never seems like Prospero now being Prospera is that much of a change. She has authority, wit, and a subtle weariness that grows and betrays her inner conflict. The other major standout performance in Honsou’s, though it’s a more troubling one; for better or worse Taymor confronts the colonialist subtext of the play head-on, casting Caliban as more native than monster, and calling up some uncomfortable stereotypes in the process. Caliban is treacherous, but not unsympathetic, easily misled, but not without cunning- there’s a frission to his scenes that I’m sure is intentional. Overall the cast is quite strong, though Russell Brand is one of those performers who is not for all tastes. Whishaw has to carry the weight of the film’s crazier scenes and ideas, and he’s remarkably convincing.

Julie Taymor is known for visual extravagance and flashy effects, which I would argue makes her perfect for Shakespeare. Elizabethan audiences loved unnecessary elaboration and crazy magic, and though Shakespeare got some nuance in he knew to play for their love of the flowery and gratuitous. Taymor doesn’t throw around CGI and visual effects willy-nilly; she saves them for when Ariel and Prospera are really working their stuff, giving us spectacle that, as bizarre as it may seem at times, feels more like true magic than the traditional sparkles and bolts of lightning. It errs on the side of too much, but it works more often than it doesn’t. The photography is grand, with some splendid Hawaiian locations.

So, yeah, I think Julie Taymor is still a great talent. I didn’t love The Tempest as much as the hugely undervalued Across the Universe, but there’s still a passion here, passion married to considerable skill. All the themes that make the original a great work are here, amplified by striking images and an engrossing atmosphere. Mostly gone from theaters, The Tempest deserves better than to sink into obscurity.

Based on the play by William Shakespeare
Written for the screen and directed by Julie Taymor
Grade: A-

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