The Play: The Tempest.
Directed by: Julie Taymor, 2011.
Ebert: Two and a half stars*
Rotten Tomatoes: 29%
I had been looking forward to Julie Taymor’s adaptation of The Tempest for more than a year, both because I had seen an awesome awesome trailer and because Taymor’s 1999 Titus is one of the awesomest awesomest adaptations of ol’ Bill Shakespeare to have ever hit the silver screen. But then it didn't seem to hit the local theaters, or at least not for long, and then there were worrying insinuations from Shakespearean sources close to this blog that this Tempest, well, sucked.
So, I ended up watching with quite a bit of anxiety. And when the first few minutes turned out to be rather weak, my anxiety deepened. The initial scene of the imperiled ship was just a bunch of unintelligible shouting and crashing waves and what-not, and then the actual sinking of the ship was an acutely cringeworthy six or seven seconds of screen time. At this point, I was afraid I was in for a dreadful couple of hours.
But I wasn’t! After the ship sinks and its passengers stumble onto dry land, Tempest suddenly gets very good, and it stays very good for the duration.
Genre & Setting: As discussed in previous takes on the Tempest, the play is filed under the meaning-deficient label of “Romance.” The movie is what you’d call an “art-house flick.”
Tempest was filmed in Hawaii, which allows “the island” to contain hyperbolic extremes of spectacularly barren and spectacularly lush and verdant land. Costuming and visual design has a kind of contemporary-Rennaisancey-steampunk edge to it. It looks great. Having said this, the special effects, especially those involving Ariel, have a decisions-had-to-be-made-within-an-arthouse-budget CGI feel to them, and don’t always look great.
The Gist, which will obviously involve spoilers: Post-shipwreck, The Tempest basically runs on four parallel tracks.
1) The Lords: You’ve got the king of Naples, who thinks he’s just lost his son to drowning; Gonzalo, a good-natured chatterbox a la Polonius; Prospero’s – or in this version, Prospera’s – brother and deposer, Antonio; and Sebastian, the King’s younger brother. Unlike in all previous versions of The Tempest I’ve seen, Taymor actually manages to keep these four guys easily distinguishable from each other. Not only can you tell them apart, but their verbal interplay, in which Antonio and Sebastian keep up a running sarcastic commentary on Gonzalo’s garrulous attempts at conversation, is rendered so that it actually seems plausibly natural. Gonzalo comes off as a sympathetic guy, but we can also tell why the younger guys think he’s a joke and why, now that they are cast up on a desert island and seem to have nothing to lose, they feel like they can get away with insulting him more or less to his face. And when two of this foursome decide to do away with the other two, you can actually tell why. The clarity of this branch of the story counts as a big win in my book.
2) Caliban and the Rustics: Caliban, everybody’s favorite monster, is terrifically acted (by Djimon Hounsou) in a performance that seems to take the voluminous post-colonial school of Tempest criticism in stride without becoming slave to it. Stephano and Trinculo, members of the King’s household staff who stumble upon Caliban and are recruited by him to supplant Prospero ('Ban, 'Ban, Ca-caliban! Has a new master! Get a new man!) are not only differentiated one from the other, but rendered with individual personalities that explain why Stephano ends up as the titular boss of the triumvirate.
3) Ferdinand and Miranda. The King’s son meets Prospero’s daughter. He’s the first dude her own age she has ever seen, and he thinks she’s pretty hot, and they are immediately coming on to each other like a house afire. All that’s really required of them is that they be young, pretty, and able to render Shakespearean language, and these qualities are more than adequately taken care of here. In addition, the dude (Reeve Carney) can sing – sez here he’s in production in the lead roll of a biopic about the late Jeff Buckley – and he scorches up a rendition of “O Mistress Mine Where are you Roaming?” (which song however I believe was smuggled in from Twelfth Night. But what the hell. It works).
4) Prospero and Ariel. Well, Prospero is a woman, Prospera, in this one. Why? Not really sure. But the father-daughter relationship, as Mrs.5000 observed afterwards, survived the transition to a mother-daughter relationship without too much trouble. The flawed old wizard is handled nicely (by Helen Mirren, a very good brand-name actress) as a curmudgeon in possession of more power than wisdom – which is, I think, the most reasonable interpretation of Shakespeare’s text.
Ariel, the good boy of the wizard’s two slaves, is generally the weak link of the Tempest in my modest viewing experience. That is true here too, although I will say that Ariel in Taymor’s staging is easily the least obtrusively annoying Ariel I’ve yet seen!The Adaptation: I guess I kind of folded my adaptation notes into my gist notes.
Clocks In At: About two hours.
Pros: Lovely to look, at and possessed of unusual clarity: you always know what is happening and why. The action bits are exciting, the funny bits are funny, and the otherworldly vibe of the mysterious, magical island is kept up throughout.
Cons: Starts off on the wrong foot, and doesn’t establish itself until the second act. Nor was I especially impressed with the ending, where Prospero’s farewell speech is sung very, very slowly over the end credits. I was hoping for a quirkier send-off then that.
Prognosis: Knowing that it’s good – pay no attention to that Rotten Tomatoes score, those people are all Philistines and half-wits – I’m looking forward to watching it again with more confidence in a few months. I think it will be fun to re-watch without the lurking fear that it’s all going to fall apart in the final reel.
*It is not one of Ebert's better reviews. He states as fact the rather antique notion that “The only way to read Shakespeare's “The Tempest” is as a farewell; a play written, if you will, for his retirement banquet…” and his main complaint is that the tone of the adaptation doesn’t match this dubious reading of the play.