Venice (Out of Competition) – Shakespearean wizard Prospero undergoes gender reassignment, and emerges in the magnificent shape of Helen Mirren for Julie Taymor's interpretation of one of the towering works of English literature. Appropriately enough for the closing film of Venice 2012, Paul Martin and Emma Rowley set sail.
Paul: Conversely, the fact that what I don't know about the complete works of William Shakespeare is of sufficient immensity to fill up a volume the size of, well, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare actually makes me something of an ideal candidate to assess this new version of The Tempest which, with its cast composed of big name heavyweights and hot young talent, is clearly intended to exert an allure beyond those who already know their Prospero from their Ross Perot. Having pleaded my ignorance though, the little I do know about The Tempest already identifies it as being of far greater interest than the majority of plays penned (uh, probably) by the Elizabethan egghead. The shipwreck-on-a-magician's-island plotline provided the inspiration for ace '50s sci-fi, Forbidden Planet, while the monstrous slave Caliban lends his name to a character in The Uncanny X-Men comic book – both of these geek-teasing titbits identifying the saga of Miranda and Ferdinand as being as close to pop culture cool as Big Willy S gets.
There is much that's pleasing about Julie Taymor's movie. The Hawaiian island locations are simply fabulous, all treacherous cliffs, crashing waves, and volcanic plateaus more astonishing than anything even the ablest of production designers could ever conceive. And when the director simply lets her actors get on with the story the results are, for the most part, involving and entertaining. Exceptions come in the shape of Felicity Jones, who makes for a blank-faced Miranda, and Russell Brand as the louche Trinculo. It is an axiom that Brand is something of an acquired taste, but even so, the importation of the street urchin persona on which he has built his post-drugs career into this fantasy milieu is noisily disruptive.
Equally abrasive, if not more so, is Taymor's predilection for flash and flourish, as also seen in her last movie, Across the Universe, which was constructed around the oeuvre of the second-best known of the English bards. The portrayal of Ben Whishaw's Ariel is particularly problematic, the CGI deployed in the presentation of his mystical powers falling well short of the standards set by the major effects movies. The argument could be put forth that The Tempest was made on a fraction of the budget of such films, but if that is the case then why invite unflattering comparisons with them by trowelling on the visual hocus pocus so heavily? Similarly out of kilter with the rest of the movie is the music, with Ariel and Reeve Carney's Ferdinand both trilling in semi-embarrassing fashion, and the bombastic rock used to accompany the former's attack on the vessel of King Alonso proving as much of a calamitous misjudgement as when Duncan declared that Macbeth fella to be “a bloody good bloke”.
Emma: Julie Taymor’s onscreen adaptation of The Tempest is flawed but thrilling. There are missteps but to see someone tackle Shakespeare with this much verve and vision is exciting in itself. The effects are hit and miss, the score occasionally overpowering and the cast at times bizarrely at odds with one another but the island locations give it a rugged grace that illuminates the poetry, the costumes are suitably fantastical and fitting to character, and Helen Mirren’s marvellous Prospera alone is more than enough of a reason to watch and enjoy. The character’s gender switch not only works well thematically (the idea that a deposed female ruler would turn to magic seems plausible) but adds warmth to her scenes with Miranda, a relationship whose emotional content is heightened by their apparently close mother/daughter bond.
The Tempest is all about its protagonist, who commands the other players: Prospera is the rightful Duchess of Milan, a much-loved leader who was kidnapped and exiled by her grasping brother, Antonio. She and her infant daughter were left drifting on a rotten boat that washed up on a remote island where she has honed her magical powers and brooded on the wrong done to her for twelve years. Finding her brother and his retinue sailing past the island, she summons up a tempest that delivers the traitors to her. But as soon as she has her enemies squirming in the palm of her hand, she begins to realise that she must forgive, not seek revenge. Mirren is incredible as Prospera: loving, manipulative, tormented, and imperious by turns, she has the poise and the range to make this one of the finest interpretations of the character. Her scenes with Felicity Jones (whose naive Miranda was not at all bad, I thought, though my fellow reviewer Paul violently disagrees) are believably touching and one of the highlights of the adaptation.
For me, it’s always been a play of two halves; the action from the comic relief (Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban when he’s with them) being something to be borne patiently before we get back to the good stuff. And if this is the case onstage, it’s doubly so in an adaptation that sees Russell Brand’’s Trinculo overpowering the comic strand by importing his own anachronistic persona into the film. Some of Shakespeare’s comedy just doesn’t strike the modern audience as laugh-out-loud funny, with its unfamiliar wordplay and its broad stereotypes. Modern interpretations cast about for ways to make it accessible and funny and putting a stand-up comic into the role of a jester seems like an excellent idea. And perhaps Russell Brand fans will find it so.
Similarly odd casting haunts other scenes, for example the courtly group made up of Alonso (David Strathairn), Sebastian (Alan Cumming), Antonio (Chris Cooper) and Gonzalo (Tom Conti) never seems to gel and the actors are at variance as to how they play the scenes, with the usually brilliant Chris Cooper left surprisingly at sea. And for a production that did attempt some radical casting, I would have liked to have seen something more: for Djimon Hounsou and Ben Whishaw to swap roles and Hounsou to attempt the noble Ariel and Whishaw the vengeful Caliban. As it is, Hounsou’s portrait of Caliban, usurped, enslaved and unforgiven adds a historical resonance that makes Prospera’s treatment of the indigenous inhabitant of the island seem overly problematic and unpleasant.
Rating on a scale of 5 storm clouds overhead: 3
Release date: US = 10 December (NY and LA, nationwide 17 Dec); UK = TBC
Directed by: Julie Taymor
Screenplay by: Julie Taymor, adapted from the play by William Shakespeare
Cast: Helen Mirren, Ben Whishaw, Djimon Hounsou, Felicity Jones, Alfred Molina, Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, Russell Brand, Alan Cumming, Tom Conti, Reeve Carney
Rating: US = PG-13; UK = TBC
Running time: 110 minutes