Julie Taymor is a visual artist who uses film and theater as her medium. But no matter how you parse his work, William Shakespeare is about the words. The images – the time frame, the setting, the makeup – only carry you so far. Then the script – the text – has to take over and do the heavy lifting.
But in Taymor’s “The Tempest,” the script seems to be weighted down, freighted with ideas that never come to life. While Taymor’s cast seems up to the task of bringing “The Tempest” to life, the film never comes alive, except when Taymor explores a visual idea – usually having to do with the sprite, Ariel (Ben Whishaw).
Otherwise, the one fresh idea – of making Prospero a female character named Prospera (played by Helen Mirren) – doesn’t enlighten or enliven. Meanwhile, the play’s low comedy – involving the drunkards Trinculo and Stephano and the monster Caliban (Russell Brand, Alfred Molina and Djimon Housou) – is dead on arrival.
Indeed, Taymor doesn’t seem to have much of a vision here, at least not one that’s obvious if you don’t read the press notes. Her desert island really is a desert island, which makes for limited scenic possibilities. The vastness of the island, in fact, makes the whole story seem smaller, less powerful – these are not characters in imminent danger of running into each other. It seems more of a stretch to imagine that the victims of the shipwreck – brought to the island by Prospera so that she may redress the wrongs they’ve done her – would find each other after they’re washed up on different parts of the land mass.
Listening to Mirren speak Shakespeare’s words is a pleasure. But the younger cast members (Felicity Jones as Miranda, Reeve Carney as Prince Ferdinand) seem to babble lines they don’t comprehend. The party of the Duke, meanwhile, which includes David Strathairn, Alan Cumming, Chris Cooper and Tom Conti – seems to have wandered in from another, even duller movie.
And the clowns – Brand, Molina, Hounsou – are choreographed in ways that emphasize the most obvious jokes without adding to them. Only Brand seems to know how to make the torpid material come to life. Well, to life seems an exaggeration – it at least has a pulse, as opposed to the stagey performances of Molina and Hounsou.
Slow and grinding, Taymor’s version of “The Tempest” would be dwarfed by any teapot she might decide to set it in.