'The Tempest': Shakespeare Rolls in His Grave
By Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Bear with me while I preface my take on Julie Taymor's remarkably dumb and artless film with some words about the poet who originally authored "The Tempest." Within its elegant narrative and embroidered language, Shakespeare's last play roils with utopian visions, sorcerer's magic, the fonts -- both dreamy and primal -- of artistic inspiration. When all the adventures of exiles and shipwrecked folk on a faraway island are done, Shakespeare meant for what's won or learned to be carried home, to become the foundations of some brave new world located ... well, under the audience's very own feet. Like "Lost," only smarter.
Related: More on William Shakespeare
Think of Shakespeare as Prospero -- or in Taymor's film, Prospera (Helen Mirren) -- theatrical wizard/scientist/dreamer. The enchanted island where the inconvenient duchess with special powers has been exiled by her corrupt brother mirrors Shakespeare's "little O," the theater in the round where, mage-like, the playwright conjured up witches and ghosts, murderous kings, nightmares of good men gone mad and base mortals scrabbling for power and occasional visions of order and harmony. And when the curtain fell, every groundling sensed the fragility of life itself:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
Such poetry might exorcize even "Inception"'s nightmares. In contrast to Shakespeare's gift for weaving words into enchanted worlds, Taymor's "Tempest" leeches most of the magic out of his language and Prospera's fertile island of the imagination. Instead of an organic unfolding, the compressed tale jitters from scene to scene, sans the connecting tissue of logic or dramatic event. All the good stuff, all the big emotions, seem to have occurred offstage, before the film began, and so nothing really happens. If it seems something lively-like's afoot, that's soon scotched by Prospera, who shuts things down like a right proper schoolmarm.
If ever this Prospera swelled with rage at having her city and rank stolen from her by her covetous brother Antonio (Chris Cooper), she's over it now. By the time this laid-back lady calls up a storm to shipwreck him on her island -- along with the King of Naples (David Strathairn), his fratricidal brother (Alan Cumming) and innocent son -- she hardly even acknowledges Antonio as a major player; her forgiveness comes almost as an aside.
Just as perfunctory is Prospera's stagecraft in putting her daughter in the way of the king's heir (Reeve Carney), a boychick so tender he looks permanently stoned. He's the perfect Adam for empty-headed, charmingly buck-toothed Miranda (Felicity Jones), pure child of nature, unsullied by the company of men, cute as a Miley Cyrus wannabe. If these two goops are the best Prospera/Taymor can come up with for their brave new world, then woe is us.
Taymor shorthands any creative dialectic Prospera's servants Ariel and Caliban represent, since she's totally domesticated the witch's dreamwork. Incorporeal Ariel (Ben Whishaw) flits about at his mistress' shoulder, happy to do her bidding, trusting she'll set him free one of these fine days. He arranges for the high-born survivors to wander interminably -- allowing time for a plot against the king's life to get hatched -- while the low-born Trinculo and Stephano slapstick their way along a separate path. When Caliban (Djimon Hounsou), dirtbag son of a nasty witch, runs into them, the base spirit is immediately convinced that the two stumbling drunks (Russell Brand, Alfred Molina) are gods. Surely they can kill Prospera and deliver the lovely Miranda into his lustful embrace. High or low, those Italians are a perfidious lot.
Taymor turned Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" into an architecturally insane orgy of sex and blood, grotesque revenge and nihilism. Whatever you thought of the result, you had to admire the director's unrelenting vision, a knife with which she never hesitated to cut out the still-beating hearts and souls of her characters. Good on her, I thought, when she switched Prospero's gender, making him a thinking woman fleeing a stake reserved for witches. And who better to play sorcerer than Helen Mirren, the wild enchantress Morgana in John Boorman's "Excalibur"?
Boorman has always believed wholeheartedly in magic; "Excalibur" posits a Merlin who, like Prospera, shapes events, but he's sometimes surprised and ultimately undone by magic that percolates outside his spells. Morgana, his nemesis, harbors such hunger for revenge that she burns down Arthur's dream of a brave new world. There's not a moment in "Excalibur" that you aren't ensorcelled by glamour'd witch and wizard. And nothing remotely as hot as their passion takes fire in "The Tempest."
What would today's groundling -- some kid with "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" and World of Warcraft under his/her belt -- see in Taymor's bloodless allegory about a wimpy witch and her sappy daughter? You want the real thing -- art, mortality, the power of magic and the imagination? Let yourself go with "Excalibur." Shakespeare would approve.
Kathleen Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool.") She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kathleen's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.