Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Bard's Tale

I was first introduced to Shakespeare in the seventh grade. Well, that not be entirely true. Even by that point I was aware of the enormous impact the writer had made upon not only the the literary world, but the English language as a whole. But for all intents and purposes I first read his work while at school here in Boston, and to some extent I took to it right away. The Bard is not exactly 'light reading', and many passages might have been all but unreadable to someone my age without the teacher able to explain certain convoluted passages. Shakespeare wasn't meant to be simply read: he was a playwright whose true popularity didn't come until long after his death, and the books we read growing up were always meant to be seen on stage, in performance, and there have also been numerous film adaptations of his works directed by the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Peter Hall, and Baz Luhrmann. So with this latest adaptation by stage and screen director Julia Taymor (that I saw last week alongside my friend The Opinioness) it is funny that the title is both the first of Shakespeare's plays to which I was introduced while also considered the last of the plays that he alone wrote.

See how moody we can make this?
The Tempest begins with exactly that, as the sorceress Prospera (Helen Mirren) summons a storm to sink a ship with the King of Naples Alonzo (David Strathairn) and his subjects aboard and wash them ashore. There, she plans to extract her revenge for being usurped by her brother Antonio (Chris Cooper) when he accused her of using witchcraft to kill her husband, the Duke of Milan. Having been stranded on an enchanted isle for the past 12 years, Prospera has raised her daughter (Felicity Jones) alone, with only the slave Caliban (Djimon Hounsou) and the mischievous spirit Ariel (Ben Whishaw) as company, Prospera is taking this opportunity of all her enemies being  in one place to teach them a lesson they won't soon forget.

Caliban is what they would call a "happy drunk"
While the language doesn't always survive intact, this IS still Shakespeare. That means that there are constantly more words than necessarily needed to describe a scene we can already can see with perfect clarity. Of course, Shakespeare HAD to overly describe the scenes for the audience since his performers were usually on stages devoid of all visual descriptors. While some passages and lines are cut, the presence of his words remain and in a way Shakespeare is the film's main character, as he's always at the forefront of the story; Even while watching you often overlook the acting of Mirren or the direction of Taymor and think, "This is Shakespeare," so obvious is his verbiage.

How utterly unimpressive
Sadly, this is one of the film's main faults. Despite the performers' best efforts, they are often overshadowed by the words they are speaking, when they're not being overshadowed by flies buzzing in the background. I'll see Mirren in just about anything. Possessing a powerful voice, she can make just about anything interesting, and she had the best performance in this cast. The problem is her character. Prospera (adapted from the Duke Prospero in the original Shakespeare) has a revenge plan for those that wronged her, but she doesn't seem much more sympathetic than any of the other characters, even the undoubtedly bad guys like Antonio or Caliban. Taymor tries to imply a bit of feminism in the role by indicating that she was banished because she was a woman, but it doesn't come off as legitimate here, and there's really not much difference between her and the original Prospero. At least she's better than Felicity Jones, who plays daughter Miranda, and Reeve Carney, who plays Alonzo's son Ferdinand. Both are cringe-worthy actors, and when Ferdinand sings a Shakespeare poem as a love song to Miranda, we want to cover our ears because he CAN'T SING, which is hilarious since Carney is currently the lead on Taymor's stillborn stage show Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. Perhaps it's just not his singing style on display here, but his scenes with Jones are boring and trite, reveling in the worst of Shakespeare's literary work.

Prepare to be bored to tears by Jones
The rest of the cast are mostly hard-working actors and many of them have done Shakespeare before, though some were odd selections to say the least. Djimon Hounsou is fairly powerful as the angry slave Caliban, but the truth is that he could have probably played just about any character in the film better than it's existing occupant, possibly including Mirren. So why does the film's only black actor play the trod-upon slave? I'll let that one hang, though the way his character is treated does speak volumes to issues of colonialism and slavery, as pointed out in a review by The Opinioness here. David Strathairn is an actor I love, but he seems to be mailing it in as King Alonzo. In truth, he doesn't have much to work with (I don't remember if that was the same in the play) but his performance seems surprisingly uninspired for an actor of his caliber. Tom Conti is great as the the noble Gonzalo, and Alan Cumming is well cast is not necessarily the best for the role of the King's ambitious brother Sebastian. Alfred Molina is hilarious as the drunkard Stephano (who was one of my favorites when I first read the play) and appears in some of the film's best (and, sadly, worst) scenes. Ben Whishaw plays the spirit Ariel to good effect, though I had issues with thew character that I'll get into later.

The setting and language are beautiful... Everything else, not so much
The two characters oddly cast were those of Prospera's brother Antonio and the jester Trinculo. Chris Cooper seems more at home playing modern-day blue collar characters, but he surprising comes off as effective as Prospera's loathsome brother. He's not the best, though this might be due to poor direction rather than his acting abilities. But the other odd casting choice was that of comedian Russell Brand as Trinculo. Though Brand might at first seem the right type to play the fool, he can't escape the fact that this is a work Shakespeare, and his line deliveries are often too whimsical or too often place heavy emphasis on certain words that sometimes comes with inexperienced actors tackling works like these. Brand is on occasion funny, but too often the best he could illicit from me was a  raised eyebrow and a question of when the scene would be over.

Thankfully not shown: Ariel's man-boobs
It's obvious the $20 million spent on the film's budget wasn't for special effects. Though filming around the volcanic areas of Hawaii provided scenery as beautiful as anything you've seen before, the few scenes were digital effects are used look horrid and detract from the film's natural elegance. Scenes especially with Ariel flying around at his mistress' bidding look ugly, and a recounting of him causing the tempest to sink the ship looks overly-stylized, And let's not forget his distracting man-boobs, which like a highway pileup I couldn't draw my eyes from no matter how hard I tried. The film then apparently ran out of money, as there are many more scenes that might have benefited from a digital make-over but come off more as stage tricks than cinema magic, especially towards the film's conclusion. Speaking of the film's conclusion, while I was glad to see it come I was startled by how swiftly it came, as while Taymor seems to anticipate that Shakespeare buffs appreciate the film's final act, it comes off as merely swift and a "well, that's done" attitude before the final credits.

Ah, the old "ring of fire" routine, an old favorite
Despite some interesting bits, I found myself epically bored by this version of The Tempest. I'm not sure how this happened, as you can't simply say that Taymor didn't understand what she was doing with the Bard's work. After all, she's directed Shakespeare on stage and screen before, most notably with Titus in 1999. Though her films have usually gotten mixed reviews in the past, boring is the one thing they've never before been described as. It's not too often that you can get a cast together with this much talent and fail miserably, but kudos to Taymor for doing it in style. Now Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark won't her only missed shot of 2010.

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