Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Taymor's Tempests

Poor Julie Taymor. She has two important projects in the news now, and it’s bad news for both. I have neither seen nor intend to see her Spiderman musical, in which she’s been so remiss as to allow an actor to be severely injured this week, with other accidents earlier in the process. Whatever happened to her puppets? They’re the only performers who can be allowed to be endangered onstage. This is Broadway, not the Roman Coliseum.

And then there’s her highly anticipated film adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, “The Tempest.” Ms. Taymor’s visual creativity seemed a good match for this difficult play. It is a story, though, and a filmmaker’s job is to tell the story. Ms. Taymor did not. Additionally, and alas, the actors, who did perfectly good work individually, for the most part were not connected to one another or the film. It’s as if they each acted alone in a studio or on a beautiful beach, and Ms. Taymor glued the resulting scenes and her visual effects together. Unlike her cast, the effects were not stellar. Visually, I expected more and was quite disappointed. Where was the director’s voice? What was her vision? Was all this hoopla just an excuse to spend a lot of time in Hawaii filming?

The Tempest” is not an easy play. Its emotions are raw, angry, blissful; its language is intense, lyrical, magnificent. When you hear these actors speak the lines, you’ll hear phrases with which you’re very familiar – it’s a highly quoted play, and for good reason. In terms of the language -- most of which is Shakespeare despite Ms. Taymor’s credit as screenwriter -- all the verse was clear, from all actors.

I’ve seen a number of productions of the play, most of which were disappointing in a few elements, though not always the same ones. Sam Mendes’ production at BAM earlier this year had some good bits, some bad bits and some irrational bits, and good performances and poor ones, including the Miranda (who appeared much too old for the role. Everyone’s too old for it, but they don’t all play it that way.). I saw that rare creature, a Miranda I liked, in the Classic Stage Company production of “The Tempest” in late 2008. The production starred Mandy Patinkin as Prospero, with a willowy Elisabeth Waterston as his daughter Miranda. In that production, Ms. Waterston held my attention, and I believed her to be 15 because she did. In the CSC production, however, I did not enjoy the clown scenes, while in the Mendes production, the clowns were fantastic, their scenes perfectly timed and felt. [My review of The Bridge Project’s production of “The Tempest” is at]

No stage production of “The Tempest” I’ve ever seen was perfect, which is fine – they’re not indelibly “finished” as films are. The theatre is alive, and ever-changing, growing, advancing. Films – and I love film – are frozen in their own time. Even if we’ve never seen a particular film actor before, even if all films for all time were in black-and-white, we can easily discern a 1940s actor vs a 1970s one, just as we can readily spot a Preston Sturges or a Hitchcock or a Coen Brothers film.

Ms. Taymor’s “The Tempest” is not particularly a 21st Century adaptation -- maybe the 1990s. And it’s not particularly hers. Yes, certain effects are smoother now than they might have been accomplished a decade ago, but that’s just technology. There’s no soaring imagination here, there’s nothing in this version that is magically of our time, or really indicative of Ms. Taymor’s capabilities. She did not bring to this story what we expected of her, and that’s what the sale was all about, wasn’t it?

In fact, Ms. Taymor didn’t tell the story in this jagged composition. The backstory is provided early in the film – as it is in the play -- by Prospera, a great Magician (or a scientist, depending on your point of view), explaining to her daughter Miranda what’s happening and why. That she has, by her powers, wreaked havoc on her enemies who, 12 years before, overthrew Prospera’s legitimate Dukedom of Milan, and cast Prospera and her daughter adrift in an unfriendly sea. This betrayal was executed by her own brother Antonio, with the help of the King of Naples. By changing the male Prospero of the play to a female Prospera, Taymor opened up terrific feminist possibilities. Prospera was a scientist, and in her time, that meant she was a witch. This made it easy for her male enemies to overthrow and exile her. And there it sat. This spiffy idea went no further than the audience saying, ‘Ah, of course they used her scientific experiments to call her a witch, and cast her off. Cool.’ But no follow-through.

The tempest of the title is a tool in Prospera’s – what? Revenge? Counter-revolution? Plans of political alliance? She keeps separate her enemies and the innocent members of their party, but as in any political machinations, all the players must come together by the end to give or get their comeuppance.

Helen Mirren’s “Prospera,” a valid and fun deviation from the original male character “Prospero,” is powerful, her verse work perfection, her emotions toward her daughter clear and warm. Her feelings toward her enemies are less clear after the initial soliloquy. And even Mirren could not make playing to an airy Ariel work – you’d think the actors had never met, and for all I know they may not have. Ben Whishaw made for an interesting and musical Ariel, always a tad dangerous and frightening, a terrifying power held in thrall to Prospera. But the connection between “master” and “slave” was missing.

Separately we saw survivors of the “shipwreck” wrought by Prospera’s tempest (the opening storm scenes were quite effective) brought to shore. Prince Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples, survives believing he’s alone in the world. Reeve Carney was quite dull in this role. Any male model would have done as well. I don’t know Mr. Carney’s work, so cannot know if this is entirely his fault or if it is shared by Ms. Taymor.

On another part of Prospera’s island, we meet David Strathairn as Alonso, King of Naples, distraught at the loss of his son. Mr. Strathairn is solid, handsome, talented, thoughtful, and his Shakespearean verse does not disappoint. Tom Conti as that “good old man” Gonzalo is excellent, an old pro in the best sense. Alan Cumming is delightful as Alonso’s brother Sebastian, not awfully bright, a follower not a leader, thinks himself a wit – a terrific role for Cumming. Chris Cooper was strong, seductive, and sinister as Antonio, the treacherous Duke of Milan, brother and betrayer of Prospera. The scenes between these four men gave me hope for the film, since they told the story their characters should, despite the odd composition of the shots.

Just as Reeve Carney was dull as Prince Ferdinand, Felicity Jones, while attractive and competent as Miranda, was not a wondrous and wondering creature as I think she should be. Nothing objectionable, but nothing exciting -- Ms. Jones is no Elisabeth Waterston.

As for the clowns – Alfred Molina as Stephano and Russell Brand as Trinculo are not connected to one another or the story, even though they share the screen more than the other actors, with few close-ups. Mr. Molina is more than competent, I’ve enjoyed his work on stage and onscreen for years, but he was just serviceable here. Mr. Brand I’ve only seen in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” and he was fine in that, though nothing special. Despite the physical disparity between these two men and Mr. Brand’s hilarious costume, these scenes did not work. To be fair, often the clown scenes in this play don’t work for me (although they particularly did in the aforementioned Bridge Project production last spring, so I know it’s possible). Because I feel like it, I’ll lay the blame for the failure of the comedic scenes on Ms. Taymor as well.

Djimon Hounsou as Caliban was quite good, a creature torn between humanity and …. whatever else he is. He almost redeemed the clown scenes, but not quite. And his makeup was fabulous, due, according to, to Brian Abbot.

Too much of the film did not rise to the level of the scenes between Alonso, Antonio, Sebastian, and Gonzalo. Mind you, it’s the actors’ work I liked. The scenery was swell, and none of these actors chewed it, but the director does seem to have relied on all the beauty to distract people from these poorly framed and composed scenes. That said, Director of Photography Stuart Dryburgh did a reasonably good job, but how could one go wrong photographing good-looking actors and Hawaii? There are too many close-ups in this film – whose choice is that? Of the many things this story is about, estranged and strained relationships are vital, and close-ups don’t tell us anything about relationships. Film Editing is listed as being by Françoise Bonnot, yet I think the flaws in the storytelling – which can be saved or destroyed by editing – here are the responsibility of the director. I quite liked the Costume Design by Sandy Powell.

When finally Prospera’s wrongdoers meet up with their hostess, the originator of the storm that cast them onto this island, nothing much happens. The sparks, the fury, the rancor, the evasiveness, the guilt, all the emotions that should be at play underneath the civility of the meeting and of Prospera’s enforced forgiveness (for she must forgive as she aligns herself to her enemies by wedding her daughter to Alonso’s son Ferdinand) are lacking. I read a brief interview with Cumming in which he implied there was rehearsal for this film, but in that scene, it felt rather like the rehearsals were between actors and stand-ins, and not the actors together. In the final cut, they were not all in the same place at the same time.

You may think I’m being hard on Ms. Taymor, but film is a director’s medium. The director has the vision, the concept; the director has the power. It is her job to pull all the disparate parts together to form a coherent and cohesive whole. To make sure the story is told. Ms. Taymor did not do this.

I’ve read “The Tempest” a number of times. I’ve seen various productions of it, each one succeeding in some aspects and failing in others. My very favorite version of “The Tempest” is, oddly enough, a film: “Forbidden Planet,” an imaginative 1956 science fiction version in which the Prospero is “Dr. Morbius” (played by Walter Pidgeon), stranded on a distant planet for 20 years, where his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) was born. Morbius’ Caliban is Robby the Robot, and the visitors to the planet are the crew of a rescue spaceship. Therefore the “Ferdinand,” instead of a teenaged heartthrob, is a grown man, captain of the Starship….excuse me, Commander of the “United Planets Cruiser,” J.J. Adams, as played by Leslie Nielsen. RIP, Mr. Nielsen. Trinculo and Stephano (the clowns) are combined into Cookie, delightfully played by Earl Holliman. And poor Prospero – he is burdened here by “monsters from the Id.” Now this version is funny and scary, and I heartily recommend “Forbidden Planet.” Alas, much as I had looked forward to Ms. Taymor’s film, I cannot do the same for it.

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer to watch my videotape of “Forbidden Planet.”


  1. Alas, I'm so disappointed! The Tempest is just about my favorite Shakespeare play and other than Othello, my most read and seen.
    Saw a production I thought wonderful some years ago in the Union Square area with Patrick Stewart as Prospero. I'm afraid I don't remember any other cast members. The plight, as it were, of Caliban, is the most interesting to me, particularly in view of a a post-colonial reading. Of course, that must come through via the discourses between Prospero and Caliban and too, Caliban and the audience. Curious if that was an obvious thread, and also as to how Caliban was played. I think he works best played a bit sympathetically, even as slithery as he is.

  2. Caliban, in this film, is played sympathetically. The full text of the play isn't in this film, but a great deal is. Caliban's story is told from his point of view as well as Prospera's, and Hounsou does a good job.