Now would Judge Clark Douglas give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground.
Our review of The Tempest (1979) (Blu-ray), published August 8th, 2012, is also available.
A tale that will leave you spellbound.
"We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little lives are rounded with a sleep."
Facts of the Case
Years ago, the duchess Prospera (Helen Mirren, The Queen) was usurped by her brother Antonio (Chris Cooper, Breach) and abandoned on a deserted island with her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones, Cemetery Junction). Prior to that point in time, the only inhabitant of the island was Caliban (Djimon Hounsou, Gladiator), whom Prospera quickly enslaved and claimed dominion over. Twelve years later, revenge is in the air. Prospera uses her knowledge of dark magic and the aid of the sprite Ariel (Ben Wishaw, The Hour) to create a tempest that wrecks a ship carrying Antonio, Alonzo, the King of Naples (David Strathairn, Good Night, and Good Luck), Alonzo's brother Sebastian (Alan Cumming, The Good Wife), Prospera's former counselor Gonzalo (Tom Conti, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence), Alonzo's butler Stephano (Alfred Molina, An Education), Alonzo's jester Trinculo (Russell Brand, Get Him to the Greek) and Alonzo's young son Ferdinand (Reeve Carney, Snow Falling on Cedars).
After everyone makes it safely to shore, Caliban enlists the services of Stephano and Trinculo in a plot to take down the overbearing Prospera, Antonio persuades Sebastian to work on a plan to rob Alonzo of his throne, and Ferdinand begins an earnest romance with Miranda. When this whirlwind of new alliances, youthful romance and devious plots concludes, who will be left standing?
In recent years, director Julie Taymor has more or less been depicted in the media as an egomaniacal villain of the art world. If the reviews of the Broadway show Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark are to be believed, she has allowed her enormous ego to lead to a massively over-inflated budget, a spectacularly awful show and numerous injuries that could have been avoided. However, I've always been quite fond of Taymor's cinematic work, particularly her anachronistic, bloodthirsty Shakespearean endeavor Titus. As such, I was really looking forward to The Tempest, as it seemed that the Taymor + Shakespeare combo was very nearly a can't-miss proposition.
Alas, I'm disappointed to report that The Tempest is more or less an ambitious misfire. Yes, it contains fine moments and good ideas, but those moments are overwhelmed by the scenes that seem misguided, overcooked, undercooked, and just flat-out wrong. Her level of success is akin to an archer hitting the bull's-eye of the wrong target: simultaneously impressive and embarrassing.
There's an enormous amount of drama and feeling within Shakespeare's play (as one would only expect from a work called The Tempest), but Taymor somehow manages to let much of that slip through her fingers as she conducts her cinematic fireworks show. By truncating the tale (something most film adaptations of Shakespeare plays do) in the manner she has and staging it in the manner she does, she has muddled the drama instead of enhancing it. A basic knowledge of the play would be useful to many viewers, as the relationships aren't particularly well-established and we spend more time attempting to figure out who's who in relation to who rather than considering the weight of their actions.
The Tempest seems to be a film in which Taymor grew so excited about her quirks that she forgot about the meat of the play. Many of the better moments are those that deal with the distinctive elements she brings to the party: doing some gender-bending with the central character (and providing us with a memorably nuanced Helen Mirren performance), using Caliban as a springboard for an examination of colonialism and finding a way to successfully employ Russell Brand's trademark spastic squawking without betraying either the actor or the source material.
This stuff is well and good, but far too many of Shakespeare's contributions are short-changed. The Caliban subplot (promising as it may be) is ultimately handled in such a disposable fashion that it probably could have been cut from the film entirely without anyone complaining. The romance between Ferdinand and Miranda is severely lacking; the two young actors involved generate zero chemistry as they wander through pretty backgrounds and coo pleasantries at each other. Many tremendous pieces of writing are lost in the fray, as Taymor drowns out quite a few lines with chaotic music and/or sound design. Even more material is lost in the hands of Hounsou, whose accent becomes nearly unintelligible when he shouts (which is a great deal of the time). The ferocity of his acting is impressive, but one might have to turn on the subtitles to understand just what he's so upset about.
One could take more comfort in the fact that Taymor's The Tempest is a tale of spectacle over substance if the spectacle were a bit better, but it's some of the weakest she's presented to date. The CGI is very dodgy at times (the fiery hellhounds in particular), and many of the design ideas play more like an eager young Taymor imitator than something worthy of the woman herself (such as the manner in which Ariel's androgynous nature is accentuated by a small pair of breasts that come and go at random moments). The best sequence of special effects is a hallucination of sorts experienced by Prospera, as it's quietly, achingly artful in a way that so much of the rest of the film should have been. Much of The Tempest serves to accentuate the overlooked abilities of Kenneth Branagh, who juggled scheming subplots of comedy and drama so deftly in Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It. Some of his clarity and sense of purpose would have been most useful in this case.
The performances are a mixed bag, with Mirren's Prospera unquestionably standing out as the highlight. She aces a handful of difficult moments and sells nearly every scene she appears in. Coming in a close second is David Strathairn, whose demonstrates a sure hand with Shakespeare's words and brings an intense soulfulness to the role of Alonzo. Brand and Alfred Molina are fun for a while (particularly Brand, whose line readings are enjoyably off-kilter), but their antics grow wearisome after a time. Cooper, Cumming and Conti are fine, but aren't quite given the attention they deserve.
At least this Blu-ray release is excellent, beginning with a fantastic 1080p/2.35:1 transfer. The Tempest is nothing if not visually striking (despite the aforementioned questionable effects), and one can fully appreciate the intricacies of Taymor's work. One thing that must be said for all of her films: you can see every penny she spent right up there on the screen. Detail is sublime throughout, as you can see every ripple in the ocean and every wisp of Mirren's hair. Blacks are deep and inky, darker scenes benefit from tremendous shading and brighter colors really pop. Audio is fantastic as well, though I still wish the mix placed a little more emphasis on the dialogue. The opening shipwreck scene is a prime example: it sounds amazing and you really feel as if you're in the midst of the chaos, but it's awfully hard to make out the Old English phrases being tossed around during all of this. Elliot Goldenthal's surprisingly vicious score (lots of electric guitars, snarling orchestral blasts and unsettling synthetic noodling dominate the proceedings) has a whole lot of kick, and the handful of brief musical numbers (none of which are near as memorable as, say, "Non Nobis Domine" from Henry V or "Sigh No More, Ladies" from Much Ado About Nothing, I'm afraid) sound excellent as well.
All of Taymor's films to date have been blessed with excellent supplemental packages, and this one is no exception. Things kick off with a pair of commentary tracks: one from the director herself, and one from Shakespeare experts Virginia Mason Vaughn and Jonathan Bate. Taymor turns in a very fine track and a valiant (if not always persuasive) defense of the film, but I was surprised to hear the Shakespeare experts so enamored with the flick. I was hoping for something a little more objectively analytical, but their expert commentary on the actual play more than compensates for their undying love for an undeniably flawed film. Next up, "Raising the Tempest" (66 minutes) is a comprehensive behind-the-scenes doc that features the entire cast and crew, while "Julie & Cast: Inside the L.A. Rehearsals" (14 minutes) offers a peek at Hounsou, Brand and Molina getting comfortable with the characters. You also get a "Russell Brand Rehearsal Riff" (5 minutes) and a music video featuring Reeve Carney (3 minutes).
I found Taymor's take on The Tempest a disappointment, and yet I suspect I'll be returning to the film at some point. As problematic and exasperating as it is, certain exquisite moments linger. I wouldn't recommend the film, but I have nothing but praise for this Blu-ray release, which delivers great picture, great sound and a supplemental package more absorbing than the film it's supporting.
Guilty, but in the way only an ambitious director can be.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
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