In the face of "The Tempest," the stormy tragicomedy of rage, romance and redemption that is among Shakespeare's last and greatest works, Julie Taymor, a filmmaking savant of extraordinary vision and voice, suddenly and surprisingly folds.
This is a tentative film and a disappointment after the brutal brilliance of the writer-director's adaptation of the Bard's "Titus" in 1999, in which she proved fearless in staging its tale of revenge. Coming as it did on the heels of her Tony-winning direction of "The Lion King" on Broadway, "Titus" helped seal Taymor's reputation as an artist of such singular talent that, succeed or fail, she could be counted on to keep it interesting. Until now.
On paper, "The Tempest" seemed promising with Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan who stirs the pot, put in the hands of a woman, the formidable Helen Mirren. But the "he" has become a "she" in name only. What could have been rich terrain to contemplate instead lies fallow with Prospera behaving very much like Prospero has in a thousand productions of the play through the years. If anything, she is a more disinterested than devoted or calculating mother to daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones) than Prospero as father ever was.
The filmmaker's screenplay is cautious as well, hewing closely to the original texture of the language and the layering of the plot, when its themes had so many contemporary possibilities. For those with faded memories about the details, "The Tempest" begins with a storm battering a ship filled with old scores to be settled. The castaways are stranded on an island where betrayals and buffoons abound, illusions of wealth tempt, dreams of power corrupt and love thrives — it could have been Washington, or Wall Street, or Hollywood. I only mention this because Taymor has a talent for mixing cultural and visual metaphors — the soldiers in "Titus" sporting designer suits as well as centurion battle wear, the skyscrapers alongside Roman ruins.
Instead, "The Tempest" unfolds on a lava bed of desolation, an unrelentingly bland landscape of rock and sand that dulls the senses at every turn. The film's troubles began as soon as Prospera raises her staff and calls up the storm that will wreck the boat carrying Antonio (Chris Cooper), the brother who betrayed her, and King Alonso (David Strathairn), the ruler who enabled her downfall. As lightning flashes, thunder roars and waves crash, Shakespeare's words are all but drowned by the mayhem, and with them the drama.
In this Godforsaken place, Prospera tinkers with mysticism, crystals suspended around the house for peering into, books of spells at hand, otherworldly creatures to do her bidding. Djimon Hounsou is Caliban, the mud-caked savage under her command, a look that might have been more disturbing had the faces of "Titus'" mud-caked returning soldiers not been so haunting first.
Opposite Caliban's darkness is the radiant light of Ariel (Ben Whishaw), the spirit charged with orchestrating most of Prospera's Machiavellian games. Whishaw is mesmerizing as he morphs through the air in a whisper of emotions and emoting. He is male, female, genderless, guileless, flying, spinning, translucent as he works his magic on the mere mortals below. The performance is achingly good — because of Ariel's desire for freedom made real, and for all the possibilities of the other characters that remain unexplored.
The ensemble cast is a strong one and comfortable with the "whilst" and "wherefores," "thou" and "thines. " What they are often not comfortable with is one another — a deadly disconnect that leaves too many of them declaiming into the wind, with the usually flawless Mirren sinking badly. Meanwhile "The Tempest's" young lovers, Jones' excellent Miranda and King Alonso's son Ferdinand (a dreamy Reeve Carney) look like a couple of flower power kids borrowed from the Beatle-mania of Taymor's 2007 "Across the Universe," yet another part of this puzzling puzzle where the pieces don't fit.
What does work is the running gag of the jester and the drunken butler, and Taymor did take a chance in casting Russell Brand as the fool against veteran character actor Alfred Molina's sot. Until his October wedding to pop star Katy Perry, Brand was best known for his spoiled rock star Aldous Snow in the black comedies of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Get Him to the Greek." He turns out to be a clever choice, at least for those of us not yet weary of the actor's antics, for Trinculo is perfectly suited to Brand's brand of posturing, petulant foolishness.
Perhaps "The Tempest's" shortfalls should not come as such a surprise. In a way, Taymor has been retreating from her earlier boundary-pushing extremes, at least on screen, for years. Though the vibrant visuals of her 2002 film on Frida Kahlo fed off the tempestuous artist's rich folk-art style, the movie was at the end of the day a relatively traditional biopic. And "Across the Universe," with its trippy free-basing style, was psychedelically eye-catching entertainment but not groundbreaking.
"The Tempest" has neither style nor substance. It is virtually devoid of any of what we've come to think of as the Taymor touch, that distinctive twist that turns the expected into the exceptional like the towering stilts that elevated the theater of "The Lion King" to such magical heights. The great crime of "The Tempest" is just how ordinary it is.