The Tempest

GENEVIEVE GAUNT reckons that Julie Taymor’s latest is more of a calm breeze.

Film Genevieve Gaunt helen mirren julie taymor russell brand Shakespeare the tempest

Directed by Julie Taymor


A film featuring a storm, magic and spirits is a must for special effects, right?  Julie Taymor’s The Tempest is certainly kaleidoscopic and full of tricks but despite some breath-taking moments, much of the SFX are excruciating.  Pretty quickly, the visual swagger fails to cover the fissure of tell-tale cracks that begin to splinter the film’s backbone right from the opening roar.

Ariel’s satanic metamorphosis into a jet black harpie is a good example. While it is raw and the swirling winds are wild and wonderful, Ariel’s wispy white translucency is as cringe as the moments when he multiplies and dances around the heavens shooting fire from his head. Nuff said?  That said, Ben Wishaw does well to capture his sprightliness and human yearnings.

Taymor’s take on Ariel’s gender shifts suspiciously from ‘androgynous’ to ‘hermaphrodite’ and so distracting were they that my gaze couldn’t help but linger on his blossoming then vanishing breasts. Was this weird physical inconsistency another of Ariel’s prized magic tricks? More like a continuity mess-up.

The very medium of film doesn’t give this play any fire. On a bare stage, Shakespeare’s language allows the imagination to colour the words. But here, when Gonzalo insists the land is ‘lush’ and Antonio disagrees that it is ‘tawny’, the camera picks up a volcanic wilderness: the cinematic realism rending the debate meaningless.

Sally Powell’s costume design is as jewel encrusted as the cast. Antonio hushes “look how well my garments sit upon me” and how well they do. Prospera’s deep blue quartz coat glints like mica schist with every sweep of its train. The royal Milanese costume with its black ruffs, studded with titanium gems and funky zips is mimetic of the very nature of Shakespeare’s text: both embedded in its Renaissance context but still good material for contemporary interpretation.

To Prospero or Prospera? Yes! Helen Mirren is very good.  Prospero is actually quite a grumpy old git but Mirren’s natural charisma coupled with the ferocity with which she tackles the language turns Prospera into a vixen-mother fending for her cub. (Caliban, after all, did try to rape Miranda.)  The close lens on Prospera’s whispered lines “And every third thought shall be my grave” gives these originally dialogic lines the punch of a dynamic soliloquy.

Dijmon Hounsou rocks as Caliban. He masters the crux of Caliban’s bestial eloquence: savouring the “twangling instruments” speech like freshwater to a sea-sick crew whilst glugging back the booze with the animal relish of any Cindies’ champion.

Unfortunately, this high-octane energy from Prospera, Caliban and Ariel suddenly evaporates whenever the Milanese court-quartet periodically traipses wearily around the island. The flagging interest only saved by the wicked duo Sebastian and Antonio (Chris Cooper and Alan Cummings) who spit out the Shakespeare with such crystal, eloquent venom as would make the RSC proud. Similarly, Alfred Molina makes a striking Stephano.

The greatest surprise is Russell Brand as Trinculo: the sloshed cockney court jester in pinstripe getup. He embraces the language with such Brandian zeal that you wonder whether Shakespeare had quilled down “nuffink” and “MonstA”. Brilliant.

Ultimately, the star of the show is Shakespeare. When the special effects fail it is his poetry which weaves the “fabric of this vision” as high as Prospera’s stratospheric Zodiac doodling. The Tempest is well cast and acted, but the special effects make it far from the stuff that dreams are made on.