53. Julie Taymor’s The Tempest (2010)
In 1999, Julie Taymor gave life to Titus Andronicus, an obscure, early, and quite bloody play by Shakespeare. It was great.
In 2002, she gave us a visionary biopic of Frida Kahlo. It was good.
In 2007, she made Across the Universe, a musical cobbled together from Beatles tunes that … what was I talking about? I fell asleep for a moment.
In 2010, she returned to Shakespeare to attempt The Tempest, a famous, late, and quite fantastical play by Shakespeare. It was—well, what was it?
My critique of this film is colored by the fact that the cast and production of Taymor’s Titus was so exquisite, and by the fact that Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books set an equally high standard for any film of The Tempest. There isn’t much wrong with Taymor’s Tempest, but there isn’t much right with it, either.
What should have been momentous is that Taymor changes the gender of Prospero, making her a Prospera, played by Helen Mirren, which again should have been momentous on Mirren’s strength as an actor. But Mirren’s turn is stoical to the point of emoting almost nothing until the climax of the film.
Russell Brand, as the clown Trinculo, is precisely as annoying as Russell Brand tends to be. Alfred Molina plays Stephano, the butler of the king of Milan who has drunken aims to become a king himself. Watching Molina act with Brand shows off Brand’s affectations and weaknesses as an actor all the more.
Chris Cooper also struggles to make Shakespeare’s words fit into his mouth, leading him to offer an uncertain performance despite his generally strong qualities as an actor.
Alan Cumming was one of the highlights in Titus. His Saturninus was a mixture of Hitler, Marilyn Manson, and Pee Wee Herman. He can work no wonders with the part of Sebastian, the treacherously jealous brother of King Alonso. What casting director let Russell Brand, and not Cumming, play Trinculo? Watching him interact with Chris Cooper reveals how tentative Cooper’s performance was.
David Straitharn, as King Alonso of Naples, acts well enough to serve as some sort of redemption for his atrocious performance in Michael Hoffman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Ben Wishaw, who portrayed Richard II in The Hollow Crown, makes a fascinating Ariel here, although the special effects are often unpersuasive.
Tom Conti is wonderful as the elderly Gonzalo, eager to restore peace to Milan.
The love story between Ferdinand and Miranda seems dulled by the performance of Reeve Carney, who seems like he was hired mostly on the strength of his cheekbones and the quality of his whisper.
Felicity Jones, who filmgoers may recognize as Jyn Erso from Rogue One, is lively as Miranda, managing to imbue her with an ebullient innocence that is not treacly.
The problem is that any good performance in this film seems counterweighted either by bad ones or stoic ones.
One of Taymor’s strengths is a surrealistic streak, and the visually dissociative moments in this film are good, but few and far between.
The end of this film isn’t cathartic, but is only as memorable as the last breath you take before falling asleep.
On the whole, Taymor and her actors tended to be too light-handed in their choices. So says your humble rogue.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.