The Tempest: As Visually Beautiful as it is Divisive

Broadway darling turned film maker Julie Taymor hasn’t exactly been having the easiest time lately has she? First she gets booted off the already doomed-at-inception Spider-Man musical, then her latest film making endeavor, a lavish adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest arrives with less of a triumphant splash and more of a feeble, unnoticed plonk, ending up on dvd and blu-ray shelves just in time for anyone who was interested in the first place to have stopped giving a damn.

Hell, even I knew this was out for a while and genuinely wanted to see it, but I only took the plunge and rented it when I was looking for something bright and shiny to break in a new tv with.

Am I glad I saw it? Sure? Can I understand why it’s largely been met with either staunch indifference or unimpressed audiences and critics? Sweet Christmas, yes.

Normally this is where I’d explain the plot, but I mean this -is- The Temptest, right, everybody knows that?

Oh right, this is the internet. Assuming that most people on the internet know classical literature is like assuming the cantina aliens from the first Star Wars know Vivaldi. OK, so here’s the quick version, because if I tried going through the whole premise I’d be here all day.

Prospera, the exiled Duchess of Milan and a powerful sorceress (she’s a lady in this version, just go with it) lives on a secluded island with her daughter Miranda and two magical servants, the sprightly elemental Ariel and the powerful demon Caliban. At the beginning of the play/movie, Prospera conjures a storm that causes a nearby ship to wash up on the island. Why? Because that ship contains her scheming brother Antonio, his co-conspirator the King of Naples, the king’s young son Ferdinand, and various other less important characters.

While Miranda and Ferdinand meet and instantly fall in love, Prospera uses Ariel to, in modern terms, lay a brutal series of mindfucks on Antonio and co.

Meanwhile, Caliban meets up with the comic relief duo of Stephano and Trinculo and tries to persuade them to help him escape from Prospera’s control.

That’s really the bare gist of it all, and if you’re a Shakespeare nerd, you will be happy to know that it doesn’t, as far as I can remember, take any major liberties with the story.

Before we get to the tricky stuff, the acting is about as mixed a bunch as you can expect, given it features both Hellen Mirren and Russel Brand. Mirren plays Prospera, bringing class, eloquence and an excellent performance to the proceedings. Caliban is played by Djimon Hounsou, who does a decent job, even if his performance is constantly teetering back and forth between subtle and blisteringly over the top.

Russel Brand is….well, he’s Russel Brand, what the hell do you expect him to do besides caper around the screen mangling the dialogue in a cockney accent thick enough to spread on toast? I’ll admit to finding Brand amusing on occasion, but it’s clear he’s wrestling with the dialogue here, and more often than not the dialogue seems to have him in a reverse suplex.

The only real problem comes from the two supposed leads, Miranda and Ferdinand, played by Felicity Jones and Reeve Carney, respectively. I could just say that their performances are boring and uninspired, but given that it’s me talking I’m more inclined to say that they have the chemistry and charisma of a pair of rocks someone’s mashing together whilst making kissy noises. I won’t bemoan that their romance is rushed and underdeveloped (it is, though) but in the hands of some talented actors that wouldn’t have been a problem. Instead we got these two, and whenever the film turned its’ attention back to them I almost groaned.

Taymor’s usual visual splendor is in full swing, as usual. The visuals are creative and interesting, but by this point that should be expected. Where things get tricky is everything in between the lavish, psychedelic effects sequences.

As I said before, I can really understand why this movie wasn’t particularly well-received, in that it has things Shakespeare purists will probably hate and things modern audiences will find weird.

Like the plot, the dialogue from the original play has been kept as intact as possible, and any new alterations they had to make don’t feel out of place. Of course, this means if you’re a modern audience member with your ipods and your hightops and your MTV, you won’t know what the crappity-crap is going on, yo. Characters all speak in a florid, poetic, wordy manner, laced with metaphors and double meanings.

Hell, I read the damn play and I still had trouble following.

We also get a healthy number of monologues, soliloquies, etc, so those accustomed to more so-called “naturalistic” dialogue may end up finding this about as natural as a Big Mac.

On the other hand, Shakespeare buffs may find Taymor’s fast and loose Broadway style a bit jarring. The soundtrack features squealing rock guitars, the wardrobe features prominent zippers and the occasional black wife-beater shirt, and Taymor’s psychedelic visuals (residual high from Across the Universe, most like) may put off any viewers used to Shakespeare adaptations more in the line of Laurence Olivier or even Kenneth Brannagh.

If you you can deal with the dichotomy present in basically every frame of the thing, then good for you, but I can’t say I blame anybody for either not understanding what the fuck’s going on or wanting to get all this modern hogwash out of our Shakespeare.

The only thing I’ll really say I can be up in arms about is the ending, which is about as abrupt and unsatisfying as that of my last romantic encounter. The -entire- ending monologue has been transformed into a droning, uninteresting rock ballad that some Janis Joplin wannabe wails out over the end credits and while I’m not married to the source material, What The Fuck Man?!

It’s the ending monologue for God’s sake, it’s the epilogue, hell in a lot of ways it’s one of the most important parts of the whole damn thing! What’s the point if Prospera isn’t even the one saying it, never mind if it’s not even a part of the actual events of the film. You might as well just play “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” for all the good it does now.

And up until that point I was totally on board, I was riding the dream train, but just like a good film review, a good film needs a good ending or the whole thing’s ruined.

Which is why I’m ending this review with a picture of a puppy cuddling a kitten. See that, Julie Taymor, now I have a better ending than you.

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