After her first theatrical production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Julie Taymor’s new film version feels stagnant. Taymor has understandably focused on making Prospero, or Prospera in the film, the focus of the play, even though she (Helen Mirren) disappears for large swathes of time. This is as it should be: Shakespeare’s play is a wonderful “final play,” a work whose treatment of the island as a stage anticipates his departure from playwriting. Taymor understands this, and has Prospera eventually recognize that she, as the island’s author, did not create her characters but is rather only capable of manipulating them. Too bad Taymor, who directed and adapted Shakespeare’s text screenplay, is not so skilled.
After being exiled from Milan with her newborn daughter Miranda (later played by Felicity Jones), Prospera bides her time on a distant island populated by the monster Caliban (Djimon Hounsou) and sprite Ariel (Ben Whishaw). When a ship steered by the men that betrayed her comes close to the island, Prospera uses her books of magic to create a storm that brings the ship to shore and, after a fashion, exact her revenge on them.
The motley crew of men who wash up on the island is divided into three groups, each drawing Prospera away from the island in some way or another—young bachelor Ferdinand (Tom Reeve) is the means by which Prospera can ensure her daughter’s happiness; comic drunks Trinculo (Russell Brand) and Stephano (Alfred Molina) parade about as unworthy would-be inheritors of Prospera’s island; and Alonso (David Strathairn) and his advisors are the men Prospera must forgive if she’s to finally accept the idea of returning to mundane Europe.
Taymor spends much too much time with Brand and Molina, who shack up with Caliban and form a trio of stale comic foils. By diverting our attention from Prospera, who is for all intents and purposes the woman behind the curtain on the island, Taymor is defining the magician by her absence—but her adaptation is timid, even retaining passing jokes that don’t make sense given her changes to the play. Caliban’s “fishy” appearance is remarked upon even though he looks, in her imagining, like a desert creature with a terrible case of eczema.
Taymor’s Caliban in general speaks to the brittle nature of her adaptation. Here, he’s strictly a literal opposing image for Prospera’s similarly ungrateful Milanese enemies, but in Shakespeare’s play, Caliban knows he’s in Prospero’s debt, which is what motivates his brooding aggression. He knows how powerless he is and yet can’t do anything about it, which is why when Trinculo and Stefano offer him booze, he finds the perfect outlet for his sulking. But Hounsou’s Caliban has none of that nuance: he bellows his way gracelessly through a pantomime that doesn’t do justice to his character’s vinegary whimsy and conniving nature. His Caliban is a dull, shambling mess of naked, stumbling ambition that’s prematurely neutered by the island’s new mistress.
That frustrated yearning for individuality is pretty much the film’s problem in a nutshell. Taymor allows the natural beauty of the film’s Hawaiian island and the intact Shakespearean dialogue to supply most of the wonderment. Her visual flair is tamped down significantly by her abject refusal to cut loose by externalizing and inflating her text’s quirks to Hindenberg proprotions like she did in Titus or even Across the Universe—and when she does, the film mostly looks like a cheap Doctor Who special.
This might be because Taymor doesn’t seem to have changed much from her original 1986 New York theatrical production. Her new film’s look is merely an extension of her stage play’s minimalist aesthetic—in fact, if you look at Prospera’s island home, you’ll see that the wedge of black sand that comprised the original theatrical productions’s only set is cheekily still present here. Both Hounsou and Chris Cooper, who plays Antontio, Alonso’s right-hand man, are likewise both playing their roles with a stagey abandon, not paying any attention to their supporting cast, which is a real shame considering how fluidly responsive Cooper’s co-star Alan Cumming, who plays Sebastian, is to his peers’ performances. I wasn’t expecting the second coming of Prospero’s Books but as long as Taymor’s determined to re-enter Shakespeare’s play, some level of authoritative authorship is required. Instead, her characteristically boisterous presence is more absent than even she realizes.