I do intend to read all of Shakespeare’s plays (and possibly the sonnets too), to study his ways and enhance my bonnet’s due–okay, that’s enough of that. They’re usually pretty entertaining and valuable at least in making me aware of the source of so many tropes and sayings and give them context. But reading is such a chore and time consuming and seeing the plays acted does give some benefit. The better the more the benefit, the worse the less. The Tempest (2010) is worth its weight in an hour and a quarter if only to come to know Prospero and Caliban.
Prospera (Helen Mirren)—sorcerer made female for the benefit of casting–has been usurped from her duchy by Antonio (Chris Cooper) her brother. Together with her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones), they are exiled on some formidable island. Prospera is aided by her deformed slave Caliban (Djimon Hounsou) and airy spirit Ariel (Ben Whishaw). Prospera has become a sorceress with the aid of books and forms a tempest in which Alonso (David Strathairn), King of Naples, Sebastian (Alan Cumming) his brother, Gonzalo (Tom Conti) the old counselor, Stephano (Alfred Molina), the drunken butler, and Trinculo (Russell Brand) the jester are all removed from their passing ship and delivered to the island. Prospera will have her revenge and entertainment.
Two things about this production stand out instantly—visual production and musical accompaniment. These are usually the last to be mentioned, but with this subject in which we are so educated and foolish, the last shall be first. I can see the meeting now. “Taymor wants to do a production of The Tempest,” says he, linking obligingly. “Isn’t that the really weird one?” queries the other. “Yeah,” he replies, “but we’re spent on titles at the moment she was going with Troilus and Cressida but I think they already did that with James Franco.” “Is it going to be a shot play or what?” the other inquires. “Film, filmy-film,” he says. “Well, we’ll have to jazz it up,” says the other. “She’s on it,” says he, “it’s going to have funkadelics and psychadelics and Helen Mirren.” “Helen Mirren?” perks up the other, “that’s alright then.” “And Alan Cumming,” says he. “Don’t be disgusting, she’s almost 70 years old,” says the other, “nobody wants to see that.” “You’d be surprised,” he remarks.
Some of the music works quite well. A little electronica, some deep booming stuff, all goes pretty well with the vivid images. Where they absolutely fall apart is when the electric guitar comes in and it’s like the first run of Jesus Christ Superstar. Funky but not fresh. The same kind of problem arises with the visual art. I like the idea of barren landscape filmed in HHHHD, but the camera is way too active. Another camera trouble comes with the anachronism of Shakespearean language. Here, for me, a medium shot makes me feel like I’m standing on the beach (or wherever) watching a rehearsal and it feels very foolish. I find this happens most with Caliban (though that has something to do with the fact that I can hardly understand him when he’s shouting).
Then the graphic artists drank too much Red Bull or something and everything goes wildly CGI. This almost uniformly happens in Ariel’s scenes. Ariel’s scenes are also where you get the funky guitar playing like the Devil’s part in The Devil Went Down to Georgia. It’s just too ambitious for its budget. The images don’t blend in to the world around them. Other scenes are effectively cut scenes that mean very little (to me, at least). Basically, I didn’t like the graphics design, but appreciated the high gloss feel. That all goes to Julie Taymor (who adapted and directed) as a big ol’ eh.
Performances? Fine. Nobody was particularly anything. You’ve got an all-star group, but the characters are flat and uninteresting. Whishaw, as Ariel, is the only one that struck me as remotely restraining himself to something approaching a character.
That leads me to the last issue: how was the play?
The Tempest strikes me as a hodgepodge of other Shakespeare plays (with a great deal of Midsummer Night’s Dream) but without the deep thoughtfulness you find in those with a proper villain. I suppose you’d say Caliban is the villain of the piece (along with Antonio and Sebastian), but their lots are particularly uninteresting and their ruminations nil. Since this is a sub-two hour production of a play which, though short for Shakespeare and shorter than Macbeth (notably short), may have some cuts that limit the complexity of the play. But I sincerely doubt it.
As far as the story is concerned, I find it a bit bumpy. Prospero basically strings these people along for a while and decides to stop because some of them are a bit sad to look upon. Backstory pumped into a monologue or two, an instant love, and that’s the whole thing. There’s a common understanding of Shakespeare that the stories are basically recycled material and his skill is in the writing.
Either I wasn’t in the mood (highly likely), it was not very good, or I’ve missed something. It’s too expensive to justify a purchase from any but the biggest die-hards.
It’s got a great poster, though. It’s too bad the story isn’t as dynamic.