The lynchpin of any Shakespeare production is in its treatment of the
text. I know that might sound obvious, but I still think that fact is
underappreciated. Sure, the casting, period setting, costume design and
set design are all important, but presentation of a play by The Bard
truly lives and dies on what is changed in, taken from, or (God forbid)
added to the original script. The “taken from” part is especially
important. I know that Shakespeare’s use of the English language is what
made him such a timeless and legendary writer, but there’s no escaping
the fact that his original screenplays are considerably wordy and
lengthy. I think it’s safe to say that in any modern production of
Shakespeare, at least 10-15 percent of the lines have been removed for
pacing’s sake. This is a great reason why Shakespeare has remained fresh
throughout the centuries, as different directors have all staged
different ideas of what should be kept in, highlighted or left out.
As a case in point, I submit Julie Taymor’s cinematic adaptation of The
Tempest, which does indeed remove certain passages of the original
play. Sadly, the film doesn’t remove nearly enough. Taymor keeps in
whole speeches and huge chunks of dialogue that would have done just as
much good on the cutting room floor. The rest of the film moves along at
such a good pace that when the redundant talking kicks in, I could
literally feel the movie grinding to a boring halt.
Fortunately, the cast is there to help try and pick up the slack.
They don’t always succeed at keeping the overlong dialogue fresh, but
these are tremendously talented actors and they’re all giving it every
effort. First and foremost is Helen Mirren, who turns in a staggering
performance as Prospera. The Dame is absolutely not screwing around
here, as quickly evidenced by her lengthy recitation of the backstory in
the film’s opening minutes. A lesser actor could never have made that
much heavy-handed exposition interesting, but Mirren told it with such
fire and fury that I couldn’t help hanging on to every word. She was
also every bit as good in her scenes with Miranda and Ferdinand,
effortlessly giving them each a hard time while subtly showing us the
tenderness motivating her actions.
Additionally, due in part to the gender change, Prospera is heavily
played as a mother figure to her two supernatural servants. This comes
through a little in her chidings to Caliban, but it’s her relationship
with Ariel that really benefits from this angle. There’s a great amount
of affection underlining Mirren’s scenes with the airy spirit, raising
their bond to another level and strengthening both characters. Ariel
himself is played by an unknown named Ben Whishaw, heavily aided by CGI.
That’s not to say that he’s played by motion capture — Ariel is indeed
played by a flesh-and-blood person. Still, pretty much all of Ariel’s
scenes use computers and greenscreen to make him transparent, make him
fly, make him disappear, give him different forms and put him in several
different places at once. This movie presents Ariel as a very
immaterial and intangible spirit, exactly as he should be.
As for Caliban… wow. Djimon Hounsou absolutely nails this role. He
perfectly plays Caliban as a fearful, downtrodden and pathetic creature,
constantly in need of a parent figure but too proud to ever admit it.
Moreover, Hounsou and his makeup artists work to portray Caliban as a
totally inhuman beast, savage by nature and educated only by tremendous
effort, which works superbly. His colleagues, Stephano and Trinculo are
both admirably played by Alfred Molina and Russell Brand, respectively.
Brand in particular seems to have a very expressive face and a subtle
gift for physical comedy, both of which he uses to quite amusing effect.
Molina, meanwhile, plays his part with the underhanded, greedy
oafishness he’s become so good at, with a fair bit of drunkenness mixed
Our villains, Antonio and Sebastian, are played by Chris Cooper and
Alan Cumming. Cooper is very good, playing his role with cunning and
some very subtle venom. Cumming, however, is merely serviceable. He
turns in a good performance, don’t get me wrong, but I was disappointed
that there wasn’t anything special about it. I found it slightly
frustrating that such a unique talent as Cumming was unable to bring
anything to this role that couldn’t have been provided by any other
decent actor. Then again, I suppose that subtlety in a role would be a
nice change of pace for him.
Then there’s Reeve Carney in the role of Ferdinand. It’s not enough
to say that he’s the weak link in the cast. It isn’t even enough to say
that he’s the worst actor in the film. Plainly and simply, Carney is
worthless. He can’t act, his attempt at singing was painful and he had
all the charisma of a brick. Though to be fair, I understand that the
role of Ferdinand is cut from the same cloth as Romeo, who’s so famously
hard to cast because he’s such an emo twerp.
Nevertheless, this is the guy that Miranda falls for at first sight.
There has to be something to him so that the pure and raw attraction
becomes understandable, but Carney’s got nada. Miranda is capably played
by Felicity Jones and she’s clearly trying hard to make the love
subplot work, but Carney gives her nothing to work off of. This, in
addition to the aforementioned redundant dialogue, can make their scenes
together quite tedious to sit through.
(Side note: Carney was subsequently hired to be Peter Parker in the
ill-fated Broadway musical of Spider-Man. What gives, Julie Taymor?!)
The movie is visually mesmerizing, but there are a few flaws. The
camera work is good, though there are a few too many close-ups and the
editing is pretty lax. The effects are great, though the CGI on the
creature effects could’ve used just a touch more polish. The costume
designs are fantastic, but the inclusion of A-shirts and clearly visible
zippers seemed really out of place.
In terms of sound, this movie is simply misguided. For one thing, the
sound editors seemed to put zero effort into making dialogue audible
during the opening tempest. For another thing, the score is really
distracting. It sounded good for the trailers, yet totally out of place
in the film itself. Speaking of which, Taymor made the interesting
choice of repurposing some passages of text as songs. A clever idea in
theory, as Shakespeare was a master poet whose rhymes could easily sound
wonderful when set to music. In practice, it’s clear that absolutely no
talent went into this idea (I refer you to the above paragraph
concerning Reeve Carney). This is especially obvious at the film’s end,
in which Prospera’s closing monologue was turned into a song. That’s
right: The epilogue — one of the play’s most famous moments — is
turned into a song that plays over the end credits. And it sucks. The
passion and the pleas for freedom have been completely drained, replaced
with mind-numbing mediocrity.
Despite all these grievances, I want to make it clear that The
Tempest is not a bad film. The visuals in this movie are inspired,
the cast (with one exception) is astounding and Taymor’s screenplay
adaptation shows clear understanding and love of the source material.
Yet given the screenplay’s excesses, it may have been adapted with too
much faithfulness. The score was also a mess and giving Reeve Carney any
shot at a career was a mistake.
This movie was only a few creative choices away from being something
truly great, and that’s the crowning disappointment. As it is, this is a
well-meaning cinematic adaptation with huge amounts of love and talent
on display. With this movie, Taymor proves once again that she’s proven
herself a visionary artistic talent, but she’s still got a ways to go
before she’s proven herself as a reliably solid filmmaker.