I discovered Julie Taymor back in 1992 through Fools Fire. At the time it was a mind-blowing TV special of myth, puppetry, and live actors based on a Poe story. I’ve never been able to find a copy of it and my own tape is likely well disintegrated. The point, however, is that Taymor’s drive to bring a unique vision is always something to see. Even when she fails (let us not speak of Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark), there are elements worth the price. And, frankly, I’ve enjoyed all her productions that I’ve seen, including this one.
The Tempest, itself, is one of my favorite plays. I can never quite tell you why as it is both nurturing but never quite satisfying. It is more of an adult bedtime story than it is fully realized characters and play, and yet I keep coming back to it. Certainly it is home to many well known lines. And there is an element of magic that Taymor brings to life in a way I’ve never seen before. I actually believed in Ariel and Prospera’s supernatural abilities.
And if you don’t know much about this production, yes, that is “Prospera.” The great Helen Mirren embodies the main character wonderfully as a female and without it feeling at all forced. In some ways, it worked better for me having the character a woman. Certainly it brought some new shades of meaning, but none that were in violation of the original script.
Visually, this is an astounding bit of film. Shot on location and enhanced with CGI and other more practical f/x, you really believe in the island and its inhabitants. It has one of the strongest openings I’ve seen in a while, setting up many aspects and expectations. This is something most directors of Shakespeare miss. Those first few moments on stage or screen are your chance to set the framework… necessary because the stories are so well known that you have to be clear where you are headed and how you will approach it. I was once in a production where the director spent 2 days working out the opening of Twelfth Night, getting the stage f/x, music, and actors all in sync for a 15 second bit. We all complained and the unions weren’t happy either as we kept going over time. However, in the end, he was right. It made all the difference and it provided the direction the audience needed to follow.
In this particular production, there is only one performance (and I like the actor) I was really underwhelmed with: Djimon Hounsou as Caliban. And given that Russell Brand (whom I’m not very fond of) was Trinculo, that’s not a good thing. Caliban is a difficult role for anyone. In this case it was a combo of the director and actor ending up with a character that would unintelligibly scream his lines and who just never felt quite right. Caliban is tragic through and through, but he is not necessarily evil, though Prospera and Shakespeare imply as much. He is desperate. And he is a slave. And he is himself a victim. Can you really blame him his actions? Every director must struggle with these questions and every performer of the role. In this piece, the Caliban moments all felt weak to me. Even those with the clowns, though with Molina and Brand chewing the film edges, you are at least entertained.
On the other hand, Ariel, played by Ben Whishaw (who I’d last seen in the wonderful Tykwer film, Perfume) was utterly believable as the tortured and enslaved spirit who both hates and loves his master. Ariel is the other difficult character of the play for any actor. Like Puck, it is a a well-known and magical spirit, that is often only supported on stage by winsome costumes, dance moves, music, and lights. Of course, with the aid of film, he had the benefit of f/x throughout to appear as magical, while Caliban was only assisted with prosthetics. Still it was Whishaw’s performance that sold it, not the f/x.
I have seen many versions of The Tempest. The most recent stage version was Patrick Stewart’s turn on Broadway some 15 years or so ago. Interestingly, I always thought that was Taymor as well, but confirmed that it was George C. Wolfe (art. dir. of the Joseph Papp Theatre aka The Public). The confusion for me, and apparently others over time, was that the opening employed Bunraku puppets similar to those used in The Lion King. In any event, I’ve seen it often and yet have never felt fully sated when it ends. This movie was no exception to that. But over time each production seems to expand in my memory to fill the empty spaces. There really is something special about this story, though it may take me years more to figure it out and explain it to my own satisfaction. This was another fascinating take on the Bard’s words and one I’m glad I’ve seen and may even buy. The extras follow the production and include a 4 min, improvised session with Brand that, while bordering on unwatchable, is an astounding bit of mental alacrity that is worth seeing.
Seek this out if you like Shakespeare at all. Seek out Taymor’s other movies as well. Neither will disappoint.
Side note: the blu-ray disc I was watching decided to throw up a scene locator every few minutes for a while and then stop and then start throwing up the locator again. Quite, bloody annoying , but I don’t know if it was just my disc or my player software or all the discs. So be warned and if you watch it, let me know.