Review by Nathan Samdahl (D)
One of the bigger disappointments of the year, The Tempest is a complete miss of a film. It's hard to say how so many creative people can create a product so unentertaining, but I will give it a shot.
I went into this film not expecting my new favorite movie of the year but at least to see an age old one executed in a fresh exciting way. Director Julie Taymor has proved this is her niche. In Across the Universe, Titus and Frida, Taymor showed she is one of the most visually creative and inventive directors working today.
For Across the Universe and Frida, Taymor takes what are essentially rather simple and generic core storylines and infuses them with a visual life that elevates them to a new level. For Across the Universe, this is mostly done through her imaginative song sequences and in Frida through devices such as her use of human integrated paintings (which look identical to Frida's actual work). These are the elements that make these films worth watching.
Titus, which definitely closest parallels The Tempest, brings a unique visual take to an old story. In particular, the opening sequence features soldiers barging into an idyllic kitchen setting before they literally march their way from modern times back to the ancient setting where the rest of the film plays out. These are the kind of visually stunning ideas that allowed Titus to work despite its dark and twisted setting and characters and its use of Shakespearean dialogue.
Unfortunately, The Tempest seems devoid of these fresh visual ideas. What happened to Julie Taymor? It almost seemed as if someone transported her and her cast and crew back to the early 90s, to a time where more literal Shakespearean adaptations where not a crazy idea (i.e. Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet). In the current film climate where old hash ideas are expected to be re-imagined in new ways (Sherlock Holmes, Dark Knight), I find it difficult to imagine what audience this film was made for. Does it still even exist? If I want to see a straight-up adaptation of The Tempest with Shakespearean dialogue I will go see the play.
In The Tempest, Taymor uses little to none of the visual pizzazz that made me a fan. The most abstract elements here involve Helen Mirren's (Prospera) servant Ariel, who is presented throughout the film with often cringe-inducing special effects. Often times Taymor has pulled off these lower-grade special effects since they operated as one piece in an overall abstract and unique world (such as in Titus). However, in The Tempest, the setting is so lifeless and mundane that these poor effects stick out like a sore thumb.
As is, we have a film with excellent actors (Helen Mirren, David Strathairn, Chris Cooper, Djimon Hounsou, Alfred Molina, Russell Brand, Alan Cumming), but with a bland, barren setting and a script that reads, well, just like the play. It pains me to even consider saying that any one of these actors felt stale and stiff, but to watch Chris Cooper deliver a Shakespearean joke that was probably only funny 400 years ago is a bit painful. To their credit, all of the actors seem to do the best they can with the dull staging and often long and arduous dialogue scenes. Ultimately, what else can they do when the biggest problem with the film is its core concept?
The time of literal Shakespearean adaptations has passed, at least for the time being; the audience expects more and should get more.
Despite all, I still remain a fan of Julie Taymor (I guess every director has their The Happening - okay, even The Tempest is not that bad). However, when a movie I'm anxious to see literally loses my interest after the second minute, I cannot recommend it to anyone. Even if you are a diehard Tempest or Shakespeare fan, you are better off seeing this in play form and watching these immensely talented actors in a better film.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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