Whenever a filmmaker tackles a Shakespeare play on the big screen, he or she must contend not only with the centuries of live performances of the work but also the prior filmic adaptations. “The Tempest” has made its way through an eclectic variety of directors, including Peter Greenaway (who used the lead character’s library as an excuse to satiate the artist’s fascination with lists and cataloguing in “Prospero’s Books”), Paul Mazursky (re-staging the story as a mid-life crisis metaphor – and featuring a lissome Molly Ringwald in her movie debut – in “Tempest”), and Derek Jarman (who put his own spin on the text by giving us a chorus of able-bodied seamen harmonizing on “Stormy Weather”).
Now comes Julie Taymor’s “The Tempest,” and despite the presence of an impressive cast and some fascinating visual flourishes, the end result winds up being a couple of hours watching people walk around an island. Taymor’s in something of a slump of late – her “Across the Universe,” except for some striking moments, played like the MFA version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and her expensive Broadway mega-musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” is getting talked about for all the wrong reasons, mostly having to do with cost overruns, glitchy previews, and injured stuntmen. Suffice it to say that “The Tempest” isn’t making this section of her career look any better.
Taymor’s big switch-up to the original is to make Prospero a woman, so that the formidable Dame Helen Mirren can play Prospera, an Italian noblewoman wrongly sent to exile who now seeks revenge on her devious brother Antonio (Chris Cooper) by sending a storm out after his ship when he makes the mistake of sailing too close to her island. Besides the political intrigue, there’s broadly played slapstick between Prospera’s servant Caliban (Djimon Hounsou) and the drunken Italians Trinculo (Russell Brand) and Stephano (Alfred Molina), and some sappy young love unfolding between Prospera’s daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones) and the washed-ashore Prince Ferdinand (Reeve Carney).
The latter two plotlines are handled so clumsily and with such little subtlety that they almost act as a how-not-to for directors of Shakespeare. His buffoons and ingénues can play like they’re being pitched to the groundlings at the Globe Theater if not handled just so, but Taymor badly bobbles these bits in a way that, say, Kenneth Branagh probably wouldn’t have.
While it’s always a treat to see Mirren in a movie, much less delivering some of Shakespeare’s more stirring speeches, the gender-switch of Taymor’s version doesn’t take this “Tempest” to a new place. One is reminded of the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” joke about one of the robots staging “an all-furniture ‘Hamlet’” – it’s the sort of switcheroo that smacks more of desperation than of creativity and redefinition.
Taymor has a top-notch crew on both sides of the camera (cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, costume designer Sandy Powell), but it’s the natural majesty of the locations (from craggy cliffs to overgrown swamps) that wind up creating the most arresting visuals. The film was shot entirely in Hawaii, but the director and her crew make all the locations feel like the bizarre terrain of the imagination.
Sadly, “The Tempest” never comes together with the pop and power and pageantry of the director’s debut feature, “Titus.” In that film, Taymor took one of the Bard’s lesser-known works and made it feel both contemporary and dazzlingly timeless. Her subsequent features (“Frida,” “Universe”) failed to reach those heights, so the fact that Taymor was returning to the Shakespeare well promised a return to form that, sadly, never materializes.
Granted, there are worse ways than to spend two hours listening to Mirren and Molina and Brand and Tom Conti dig into this ferocious iambic pentameter, but given the possibilities of this project, “The Tempest” comes loaded with thunder but yields precious little precipitation.
"The Tempest" opens in limited release on Friday.
Duralde is the author of “Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas" available on Amazon.com and the DVD Editor of Movieline. He's also written for MSNBC and the Rotten Tomatoes Show.