Winds of change for sake of change
Julie Taymor has the rare and semi-precious gift of artistic vision unhampered by taste. Wherever she turns her indomitable will — upon the Beatles in “Across the Universe’’ or the Bard in “Titus,’’ the life of Frida Kahlo on film or the sorrows of young Spider-man on Broadway — she dispenses high-minded excess yoked to mind-blowing production design. Her works are too much of a too muchness, inventive without a sense of play, creative without taking any joy in the creation. A comparison to Baz Luhrmann is useful: Where Taymor self-consciously aestheticizes pop vulgarity, a movie like “Moulin Rouge!’’ just dives right in.
“The Tempest’’ is typical Taymor, if in a minor key. It’s late-inning Shakespeare filmed on the volcanic beaches of the Hawaiian isles and warmed by Dame Helen Mirren as the gender-switched Prospera, magician and exiled monarch of the island. Those with very long memories may recall a 24-year-old Mirren frolicking nude on similar shores in 1969’s “Age of Consent.’’ In that movie she was like Miranda and Ariel both, and the recollection still seems to gleam impishly in Prospera’s eyes.
But there’s vengeance and mercy to dispense, a daughter to marry off, a sprite to free. Having arranged the shipwreck of King Alonso of Milan (David Strathairn), his ardent young son Prince Ferdinand (Reeve Carney), and Duke Antonio (Chris Cooper), Prospera’s treacherous brother, the mage leads them all astray through the wilderness. Ferdinand she brings to her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones) and tests them both, she for maturity and he for constancy. The love scenes in this “Tempest’’ have the right hushed emotional intimacy, even if Ferdinand and Miranda have to sweat out their iambic pentameter on a field of volcanic scree. Carney’s a plank, a faded Orlando Bloom, but Jones gets the headstrong, watchful girl-child about to become a woman.
The best sequences in “Tempest’’ are all quiet, not that there are many of them. Any time Mirren settles in for a good ruminative soliloquy you can relax, but Taymor keeps bringing on the banshees and the jesters. Our first sight of Russell Brand as Trinculo is a hoot — he looks as if he has staggered in from the set of “Get Him to the Globe’’ — but the ribald lowbrow slapstick with Stephano (Alfred Molina, quite good) soon palls. Casting Brand turns out to have been a better idea than actually using him.
And what are we to make of the movie’s Caliban? The role of Prospera’s rebellious slave has often been played on stage by a black actor, and anticolonialist interpretations have been around since the 1970s. Taymor uses Djimon Hounsou’s commanding physique and booming voice without any political subtext, though — without any subtext at all. And, believe me, it’s needed. Hounsou gives a solid performance, but I think the last time we saw a black character pining for a virginal white girl before being chased off by dogs was “Birth of a Nation.’’
“The Tempest’’ fares somewhat better with its Ariel, played by Ben Whishaw as a sort of airborne David Bowie during his “Aladdin Sane’’ period. The character is sent this way and that with the aid of the latest in digital effects, which means the movie will look dated by next month, but at least Whishaw respects the text, and his scenes with Mirren have a conspiratorial humor missing from the rest of the film.
By making Prospero a woman, Taymor’s “Tempest’’ invites a matriarchal reading, one in which a powerful woman is marginalized by men until she can redress matters on her own turf. Mirren’s a strong enough actress to make it work, but the movie fritters away urgency pursuing its many tangents: low comedy, high romance, political intrigue. Shakespeare’s final play was (among many other things) about resolving these genre strands in forgiveness and understanding. Taymor seems more interested in the strands.
Nor does she throw away a single idea, good or bad, yet “The Tempest’’ still lacks the go-for-broke lunacy of the best gonzo Shakespeare — follies like the 1935 film version of “Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ or Luhrmann’s “Romeo+Juliet.’’ (And let’s carve a special pop niche for the 1956 sci-fi “Tempest’’ adaptation “Forbidden Planet,’’ costarring the late Leslie Nielsen.) Taymor may be opening a new chapter in Shakespeare studies: stodgy subversion.