Julie Taymor takes a break from directing the broadway version of Spider-Man to give Shakespeare’s The Tempest a high fashion makeover, drawing Helen Mirren, Russell Brand, Alfred Molina and a host of big name actors into the fold in the process.
In this re-imagining, arch wizard Prospero, who orchestrates proceedings, is ‘shockingly’ gender converted into Prospera (Helen Mirren) a headline change designed to pique interest among aficionados of the the bard. Otherwise the plot remains much as in the original play.
Prospera was a powerful noble in her native Milan but, when her detractors got wind of her alchemical tamperings, she was brutally deposed and cast adrift with her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones). Together they wash up on a desert island, where Prospera immediately deposes the evil witch Sycoraz, ‘freeing’ the spirit Ariel (Ben Whishaw) – by which I mean making him her own slave – and also enslaving Sycorax’s hideous son Caliban (Djimon Hounsou).
With this prologue in place, we embark on the main story: beginning with Prospera wrecking a passing ship onto her island. But it is no ordinary ship, for it contains the nobles who deposed her back in Milan, and once on her island the collection of sailors are drawn into a plot to right the wrongs of the past, and create a bright future for young Miranda.
As a re-imagining, particularly by a director so well renowned, ‘The Tempest’ is depressingly pedestrian. The gender change for Prospero does remove some ridiculous theories about his motives, but adds little of value to the story as a whole. It touches briefly on the idea of witch-hunting, but withdraws its thematic hand before making any meaningful points.
Similarly underused is the story of Caliban. Djimon Hounsou is made up to look menacing and otherworldly as he lumbers about his burdonsome existence, but the themes of colonialism and slavery are barely mentioned. Instead, he is launched into the disappointingly by-the-book comedy plot of Trinculo (Brand) and Stephano (Molina) which, far from adding a much-needed dynamism to a depressing and dark story, blunders through Taymor’s ridiculous production design tearing any interesting ideas to shreds as they go.
Equally jarring was the costume design. A failed fusion of the Elizabethan and the high-fashion, Taymor’s tailoring is a mess of zips and buckles, black and blazingly bright that does nothing more than distract from the characters that sport them.
Worst of all is the spirit Ariel. Prospera’s arch-arbiter of events, and the biggest unknown quantity of the play, the spirit is reduced to humdrum servitude. Taymor attempts to brighten his role with some special effects, but frankly they are more suited to a 1960s cartoon than a serious adaptation of Shakespeare.
It’s simple, uninspired, and full of conflicting approaches, and so I find it hard to recommend to anyone out there.
The Tempest is in U.K. cinema’s now.
This article was first posted on March 4, 2011