REVIEW: “The Tempest” (*)

Posted by · 3:52 am · September 11th, 2010

Venice Film Festival

If any one title in the Shakespeare library has been sufficiently fiddled about with on screen, it’s “The Tempest,” among the most tonally malleable of his comedies, and a fantasy that gifts filmmakers with obvious opportunities for spectacle.

“Forbidden Planet,” a terrific 1956 sci-fi riff on the play, perhaps took this adaptability furthest, but it only set the ball rolling for assorted free interpretations: Derek Jarman gave it a homoerotic spin in 1979, Paul Mazursky rewrote it as a neurotic modern-day sex comedy in 1982 and Peter Greenaway played all manner of metatextual games in 1991’s “Prospero’s Books.” At this point, about the most radical thing a filmmaker could do with “The Tempest” on screen is play it straight.

That is evidently not a view shared by one Julie Taymor, whose murky, lunk-headed and signally boring new film tricks out Shakespeare’s text with gaudy CGI saturation, a wardrobe from “Zoolander”‘s Derelicte collection and a key sex change in the lead, as sorcerer and doting father Prospero here morphs into Helen Mirren’s Prospera, a highbrow voodoo priestess of sorts with a permanent Patty Hewes-style scowl.

On paper, the gender switch sounds at least notionally interesting. Shakespeare’s play hinges so heavily on the theme of paternal love — as Prospero, former Duke of Milan, guards the virginity of his teenaged daughter Miranda, with whom he has been banished to a mostly unpeopled island by his usurping brother Antonio — that such a change promises a hefty restructuring of the text’s sexual politics: two women, a fiercely protective single mother and her daughter, being disempowered by a male relative is a story very different from the one told by The Bard, in or out of an imaginary dimension.

Taymor, however, doesn’t probe this potentially contemporary angle; nor, despite casting Djimon Hounsou (yet again on semi-noble savage duty, though the character is rendered more a figure of fun in Taymor’s reading than in others) as Caliban, does she go down the post-colonial path of interpretation that many have taken with the play in recent decades. There is, in fact, no interpretation here whatsoever: Taymor’s redreaming is limited to surface-level visual dressing of a vanilla community theater-style performance. This would be fine — Baz Luhrmann’s hopped-up “Romeo + Juliet” didn’t have much to say about its source material either — if the performance itself was a little more committed, and if Taymor’s aesthetic innovations weren’t so uniformly trite.

Taymor may have long been described (and indulged) as a primarily visual artist of stage and screen — her three previous films layering stylized technique upon stylized technique to arresting but often suffocating effect — but “The Tempest” is the first of her films that could be described as drab, or even ugly.

Shot in muddy teal tones by an under-tested Stuart Dryburgh, the film locates the action almost entirely on a bleak exterior landscape of dun-colored rock (usually brilliant production designer Mark Friedberg takes an idle paycheck here) that is essentially the cinematic equivalent of a black box stage — as Taymor revels in glum silhouettes of isolated figures on this harsh terrain, the film gradually takes on the appearance of a Depeche Mode video, and not one of their better ones.

The minimalism of the locale, however, is countered by Taymor’s oppressive reliance on synthetic-looking digital effects, beginning with a cacophonous storm sequence (which finds Shakespeare’s words entirely buried in the sloppy sound mix) and employed most heavily in the characterization of Prospera’s enslaved spirit Ariel, inhabited by Ben Whishaw as a transparent shapeshifter whose assortment of visually elaborate entrances and exits quickly grows distracting. This CGI canvas would be tawdry even if it weren’t so carelessly executed, but when certain scenes can’t be bothered to match character eyelines, Taymor’s busy technical ideas become a dramatic debit too.

Amid filmmaking that manages the not-inconsiderable feat of being simultaneously chaotic and dull (even Elliot Goldenthal’s 1980s prog-style score is off-target), the distinguished cast becomes merely another element in the mix. Mirren musters appropriate sound and fury in the lead, but can’t locate unfamiliar nuances or inflections in Prospero’s most renowned speeches. Hounsou is typically imposing, but overacts as if trying to be heard above Taymor’s direction, while Whishaw and relative newcomer Reeve Carney duke it out limply for “most insipid” honors.

The only performer who does make an impression — and not a particularly felicitous one — is Russell Brand, ostensibly playing drunken jester Trinculo but really playing Russell Brand playing drunken jester Trinculo, his trademark dissolute-dandy mannerisms given free rein by his evidently amused helmer.

Taymor has long been a problematic talent, but even the most out-of-control passages of “Across the Universe” and “Frida” demonstrated a naïve, wild-eyed devotion to her material that simply isn’t in evidence here. “The Tempest” treats Shakespeare’s writing as little more than a vessel for unmoored visual concepts that brook no further discussion of the play — something that her 1999 debut “Titus,” a far gutsier stab at a less overexposed work by the Bard, did invite. This flabby, empty pageant will likely enjoy a long life in high school classrooms, as desperate English teachers stick it on in the hope of making the play seem more hip to their unmoved students, but they’d be serving the kids — and Shakespeare — better if they dug up a copy of “Forbidden Planet” instead.

[Photos: Touchstone Pictures]

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37 responses so far

  • 1 9-11-2010 at 7:38 am

    Loyal said...

    So no Oscar noms for Costume or Art Direction?

  • 2 9-11-2010 at 7:47 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Certainly not for Art Direction. Maybe Costume Design, if that branch really is devoted to Sandy Powell — but I don’t like her work here.

  • 3 9-11-2010 at 8:00 am

    m1 said...


  • 4 9-11-2010 at 8:08 am

    Nick Davis said...

    I can’t say I’m surprised. Taymor and Shyamalan might want to split the costs on a U-Haul out of Hollywood. I’m disappointed if this is as woeful as you describe (and it’s easy to believe that it is), but I wouldn’t miss her if she stopped making movies altogether.

  • 5 9-11-2010 at 8:10 am

    Loyal said...

    At least the Spider-Man musical looks like a hit.

    Oh wait

  • 6 9-11-2010 at 8:15 am

    Michael said...

    I kinda figured this was going to happen. Something about the length of the delay and having it premiere as the closing film out of competition all added up in my mind that it was a stinker. I do love many things about Taymor’s other films but would never actually watch them just for fun. I will probably still see this film if it ever gets a theatrical release but I won’t be thinking of this as any type of awards threat now (which it wasn’t really on my list as a big threat to begin with.)

  • 7 9-11-2010 at 8:33 am

    Maxim said...

    “Taymor has long been a problematic talent”

    Boo to that. A really poor choice of words.

  • 8 9-11-2010 at 8:36 am

    Maxim said...

    And, most importantly, what do you think about this films Oscar chances: Best Picture winner or not?

  • 9 9-11-2010 at 8:40 am

    Maxim said...

    “I can’t say I’m surprised. Taymor and Shyamalan might want to split the costs on a U-Haul out of Hollywood. I’m disappointed if this is as woeful as you describe (and it’s easy to believe that it is), but I wouldn’t miss her if she stopped making movies altogether.”

    Geez, where’s all that negetivity is coming from? Taymor was easily one of the best female directors ever up to this point and based on a single negative review you are ready to kick out of Hollywood? Well, here’s a tip, buddy, with tastes like these, nobody cares what you care about.

  • 10 9-11-2010 at 8:45 am

    Bryan C. said...

    OT: Since you didn’t review it, I’m assuming you missed Tom Tykwer’s ‘Drei’. I’m just curious how it was received. What have you heard from others about that one?

  • 11 9-11-2010 at 9:06 am

    Jim T said...

    Maxim – I don’t really care to co-troll with you but since I don’t like labeling people as “lost causes”, I’ll tell you this:

    1) Good or bad is a matter of point of view and it’s obvious from his comment that Nick Davis doesn’t see her work the way you do.

    2) I prefer a person who disagrees with my tastes than one who agrees but for the wrong (or just obvious, boring, shallow etc) reasons.

    3) I’m pretty sure you knew 1) and 2) already but you just chose to forget about it.

    One day you’ll say something brilliant and nobody will be in the mood to pay any attention. Friendly warning.

  • 12 9-11-2010 at 9:08 am

    Duncan Houst said...

    @ Nick: You can’t seriously be comparing Julie Taymor to M. Night Shyamalan already? This is one failure. Shyamalan has had nearly 6 or 7. You’re being way too harsh on her.

  • 13 9-11-2010 at 9:22 am

    Nick Davis said...

    @Maxim: I know you are a sworn opponent of negativity in all its forms. I will say I didn’t mean that to sound negative for quite the same reasons that it did. I’m thinking more practically than anything. Clearly, after the notoriously embattled productions of Frida and Universe, the pre-production catastrophes of the Spider-Man musical, the chilly reception of her very expensive Grendel opera, and the lukewarm-to-poor response that this delayed Tempest has provoked in its first round of reviews, Taymor is on thin ice in terms of investors willing to trust her or studios wanting to work with her. I’m not disputing her creativity, but sadly, you can stick around in Hollywood for a long time as a hack, but it’s much harder if you aim so squarely for “genius impresario” cachet, as Taymor and Shyamalan did, and then lose the critics, the audiences, and the number-crunchers. And even harder if your whole aesthetic kind of depends, as Taymor’s does, on having lots of cash at your disposal. She’s in a bad spot in her personal PR, and this film seems unlikely to turn that around.

    But yes, the downward creative slide from first film to second and second to third has been alarming, and everything I was hoping not to hear about The Tempest is symptomatically reflected here and in other reviews: that she’s almost trying to “rein it in” to the extent of being a little dull, and yet there are still problems of excess and gaudiness. Speaking as one viewer, I’ve just lost the expectation that she has as much to show us as Titus (a la The Sixth Sense) might have implied. If anything, the later work has shone a spotlight on the shortcomings of the early success, rather than the other way around. She’s more interesting than a lot people out there, but I’ve given up on believing in her.

    As for “easily one of the best female directors ever,” I suspect you’re keeping a very tiny subset of “female directors” in mind when you say that. I find it an unimaginable claim even in light of Taymor’s best hour on film, but if you’re still super-jazzed about her, hooray for you.

  • 14 9-11-2010 at 9:34 am

    Ivan said...

    Julie Taymor + Helen Mirren + Sandy Powell = It can´t be that bad.
    Her last effort in Across the Universe was brave with magnificent results!
    Sometimes this kind of expressions aren ´t for Eastwoodtype of fans.

  • 15 9-11-2010 at 9:54 am

    reuben said...

    Ouch. Do you know if you’re in the in the minority or is this the widespread thought.

  • 16 9-11-2010 at 9:55 am

    reuben said...

    edit: There should’ve been a question mark there instead of a period, obviously.

  • 17 9-11-2010 at 10:09 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Holy crap.

  • 18 9-11-2010 at 10:28 am

    James D. said...

    Across the Universe was one of the worst movies I ever saw. I am not surprised.

  • 19 9-11-2010 at 10:39 am

    Patryk said...

    I was hoping Ben Whishaw could emerge from this untarnished. Hopefully this will be quickly forgotten.

  • 20 9-11-2010 at 10:42 am

    Drew said...

    I wasn’t expecting and overwhelmingly postive response but DAMN!

  • 21 9-11-2010 at 10:48 am

    JFK said...

    For posterity, this is what I tweeted after seeing a screening back in June: “The Tempest: Weird acid-trippy venture into Labrynth-land complete w/ rockin’ soundtrack and creepy sprite.”

  • 22 9-11-2010 at 11:08 am

    Leo said...

    This is truly disappointing. As much as I agree with Nick Davis’ view of Taymor’s downward spiral as a filmmaker, I was rooting for this project as a salvaging act. I loved her work in Titus, and with a cast as diverse as this, I imagined there was something about the script that was strong enough in the first place to attract such talent. I’m afraid I will still see this as I am an English major and Shakespeare is one of those beasts we are taught to seek and navigate. But needless to say, my expectations will be much lower waling in.

  • 23 9-11-2010 at 11:28 am

    Will said...

    Guy, I know you touched on it a bit, but what was your opinion of ‘Titus?’ I thought it was a huge mess, but found myself enjoying parts of it, and I wonder if your reaction to Titus can predict your reaction to this one.

  • 24 9-11-2010 at 4:55 pm

    Karen said...

    I saw her Tempest at a New York screening a few months ago and thought it was the best Shakespeare ever put on film–lucid, intelligent, heartfelt, and creative. And of the few reviews (blog and otherwise) that are out, this one is by far the most negative. (And from what I hear on the inside re the spiderman musical, it’s artistically in fine shape) — so I wouldn’t count out Ms. Taymor just yet….

  • 25 9-11-2010 at 6:46 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Bryan C: I did see “Drei” — one of a bunch of middling-to-weak films I saw the day before yesterday. Wasn’t really inspired to write it up, I’m afraid.

    Reuben: I spoke with about six US and UK critics afterwards — nobody had a kind word for it. But we’ll see.

    Will: I think “Titus” is easily Taymor’s most interesting film, and I was hoping this would be a return to that form. Alas.

  • 26 9-11-2010 at 10:14 pm

    Dan said...

    This is one of the best-written reviews I’ve read in a while. I’m going to start working ‘lunk-headed’ into otherwise boring conversations.

    Maybe she’s put all of her good creative energy into Spiderman: The Musical?

  • 27 9-12-2010 at 1:39 am

    Glenn said...

    The term “Oh dear” comes to mind.

  • 28 9-12-2010 at 4:24 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Karen: “Best Shakespeare ever put on film?” Better than Olivier’s “Henry V,” Kurosawa’s “Ran” and “Throne of Blood,” any of Welles’s stabs? Opinion is a multi-headed beast, I know, but I can’t even begin to comprehend such a statement.

    Ivan: Who said I’m an “Eastwood type of fan?”

  • 29 9-12-2010 at 2:58 pm

    MovieMan said...

    “Across the Universe” was brave but without any emotional pull. I sadly saw neither “Frida” nor “Titus.” Not sure if I’ll see this one, but we’ll see, I suppose. It sounds dreadful.

  • 30 9-13-2010 at 8:16 am

    Andrew F said...

    This makes me a very sad panda.

    Any chance of further editing/post-production to come save the day?

  • 31 9-13-2010 at 8:34 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    The CGI could sure use some tweaking. But the movie itself is too flat to be saved. (In my opinion, of course — in case that needs to be added.)

  • 32 9-13-2010 at 10:10 am

    Karen said...

    Guy: Well I guess I would qualify my “best shakespeare on screen” comment, in that I meant “a film where practically all the dialogue is the Bard’s.” The challenges that that entails are much different than simply adapting Shakespeare’s plots. So Ran and Throne of Blood–both great films, but I don’t count them. And I’ve always found Olivier too hammy on screen (he was probably much better live)…

  • 33 9-13-2010 at 12:56 pm

    Ben M. said...

    I saw it at an early screening back in May, and liked it more than Guy did, but felt it was fairly average and was surprised to see it chosen as the centerpiece of the NYFF. The picture is interesting visually, and I liked Mirren and Brand (though I bet some will really dislike his performance), but the film is a bit of a mess. Such a shame, since I feel it is one of Shakespeare’s best plays.

    I agree that Whishaw was weak; I actually don’t even remember who Reeve Carney was (obviously he didn’t make much of an impression) and it is interesting considering he is playing Spider-Man in the upcoming musical by Taymor.

  • 34 3-21-2011 at 9:18 am

    Frank Bacon said...

    The film defines ‘travesty’. Shakespeare rendered banal by crass literalism, trendy genderism and Spinal Tap-type ‘rawk’. Brand is ludicrously miscast – he’s only good at playing his overwrought ‘self’, of which a little goes a long long way. Never knew it was so easy to get money for such tosh.

  • 35 6-03-2011 at 3:23 pm

    vincent shakespeare director said...

    One of the more succinct, erudite and egalitarian reviews to this ‘all-too-non-artistically-acceptable’ efforts of Hollywood.

    I myself am in the midst of proposing my ‘today language’ version of the play, in rhyme when needed. No camp, nor joinery, just an effort to speak it as the theatrical event it is.

    It will be shot off Italy (will for the stuff of dreams), and star a most valuable Prospero … one I have envisaged for over 20 years upon the dusty boards of my most humble attic stages.

    So sad, that this film came about. In the canon of cahiers … we will plant anew…

  • 36 6-03-2011 at 3:24 pm

    vincent shakespeare director said...

    One of the more succinct, erudite and egalitarian reviews to this ‘all-too-non-artistically-acceptable’ efforts of Hollywood.

    I myself am in the midst of proposing my ‘today language’ version of the play, in rhyme when needed. No camp, nor joinery, just an effort to speak it as the theatrical event it is.

    It will be shot off Italy (will for the stuff of dreams), and star a most valuable Prospero … one I have envisaged for over 20 years upon the dusty boards of my most humble attic stages.

    So sad, that this film came about. In the canon of cahiers … we will plant anew…