Published Dec 17, 2010Julie Taymor is the cinematic equivalent of ex-Toronto Raptor Vince Carter: a prodigious talent who had a blistering start, struggled to harness his inherent abilities then failed to live up to expectations. Sure, neither of their careers are over yet, but a great deal of mediocrity has followed their early flashes of brilliance.
A Tony-winning stage veteran, Taymor began her film career with a hugely imaginative, gruesomely gorgeous adaptation of William Shakespeare's oft-maligned Titus Andronicus, re-titled Titus. Vibrant biopic Frida followed before things went pear-shaped with Across the Universe, which was little more than a collection of pretty set pieces, a terrible Bono cameo and some obvious, hollow Beatles videos. Taymor's take on The Tempest is better, albeit marginally.
From a cinematic standpoint, the play has inherent structural problems. First and foremost, it begins with the titular storm, which is like starting a heroin film with the overdose. Taymor anticipates the difficulty this presents (i.e., a lack of subsequent action beats) and downplays the tumult.
Compared to other epic film squalls (The Perfect Storm, Master and Commander or basically any other recent seafaring flick), Taymor's plays like a sun shower, which sets the tone and plot on a horizontal trajectory from which it never recovers.
Taymor's interpretation of the play doesn't deviate much from the original. Sure, she turns the protagonist into a woman (Helen Mirren as Prospera, nee Prospero), but that doesn't spur the anachronistic women's rights issues that it could. After all, Prospera is stuck on a mostly uninhabited island, so the lack of society and, in turn, concrete context downplays the switch.
Otherwise, the story is basically the same: an ousted Italian diplomat is stranded on an island with a virginal daughter, a slave (a scene-stealing turn from Djimon Hounsou) and an elemental to keep her company. When fate and magic give her a chance for revenge, Gilligan's Island-style hi-jinks ensue.
With talent to burn, the cast includes a surprisingly restrained Helen Mirren (Prospera) and a smattering of excellent character actors, notably Chris Cooper (Antonio), David Strathairn (Alonso), Alfred Molina (Stephano) and the underrated Alan Cumming (Sebastian). Also, Russell Brand shows up as himself – don't let the Trinculo tag fool you – which he does predictably well.
Still, Taymor is more interested in pretty vistas – and there are some fantastic ones – than tension or action. The former is non-existent, with potential revenge traded too quickly for less-satisfying redemption, while the latter is ruined by second-rate CGI, essentially wasting the usually excellent Ben Whishaw (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and Bright Star).
Given the talent on-hand, Taymor included, The Tempest is overflowing with potential, yet ends up surprisingly lifeless. Granted, it's a gigantic improvement over Across the Universe, but Shakespeare is a far better scribe than either Lennon or McCartney. (Maple)