“O Brave New World”: Taymor’s Tempest Dreamlike, Occasionally Terrifying


Julie Taymor

The foxiest 65-year old in Hollywood commands the elements as Prospera in Julie Taymor’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Tempest.”

Eva Sachs

William Shakespeare’s The Tempest is nothing if not surreal. Julie Taymor OC ’74 takes that to heart in her new film adaptation of the classic play. The movie is extraordinarily dreamlike, with countless special effects that vary from obvious green screen to frighteningly realistic animation. Today’s films habitually focus on hyper-realistic effects using the latest technology, making the transparent, almost two-dimensional appearance of the mischievous sprite Ariel (played by Ben Whishaw) that much more startling.

These effects, however, vary not only in realistic quality, but effectiveness. At their best, the film’s special effects make Ariel beautiful and occasionally terrifying, especially when he floats amid ocean currents or appears as a nightmarish creature in service of his master, Prospera (Helen Mirren), a feministic version of the original play’s Prospero.

At their worst, The Tempest’s special effects become distracting. Take, for example, the patchy mix of white and black skin given to Caliban (Djimon Hounsou), an island native and Prospera’s slave. Or the illusions that Prospera conjures to celebrate her daughter’s engagement to Ferdinand, prince of Naples (Reeve Carney), which are cut short by a clashing overlay of Mirren’s face just as the images graduate from a conglomeration of astrological pictures to a more pleasing montage of doves and sprites.

Much of the rest of the film is just as hit-and-miss as the graphics, particularly the costumes. It was a relief when Prospera shed her garish sorcerer’s cloak for a more simple and lovely blue tunic. And her daughter Miranda’s (Felicity Jones) nature-made dresses were far more beautiful than the unusual — though fascinating — zipper-covered doublets of the shipwrecked band of Italian nobles that includes Ferdinand and his relatives.

The story essentially adheres to the basic guidelines of the play, with a few tweaks to allow for Prospero’s sex change. The sorcerer, now the widow of the deceased Duke of Milan, tells her daughter the story of how she was exiled for witchcraft by her traitorous brother Antonio (Chris Cooper) and the king of Naples, Alonso (David Strathairn). By sheer luck, these traitors, along with a few friends and relatives, pass Prospera’s island home in exile on a ship ride home from a wedding in Tunisia. With the aid of Ariel, Prospera creates the storm for which the show is titled, shipwrecking all the passengers on different parts of the island and thus creating three distinct storylines.

In Taymor’s recreation of the tale, the three narratives vary widely in quality. Even in its original form, Ferdinand’s lone adventure that leads him to fall in love with Miranda is a banal and overdone love story, and Carney’s dull, often unenthusiastic delivery of his lines makes one impatient to move on to the two far more entertaining shipwrecked parties.

Alfred Molina and Russell Brand provide superb comic relief as the drunken castaways Stephano and Trinculo. With the encouragement of Caliban, the two make an excellent group of bumbling, would-be usurpers of Prospera’s throne. Although Hounsou’s acting is frequently over-exaggerated, once he joins forces with Brand and Molina he begins to play a slightly subtler, calmer Caliban. Although Hounsou returns to exaggerated behavior at times, particularly in the scenes where Stephano and Trinculo ply Caliban with alcohol, his portrayal ultimately makes the slave a funnier and a more poignant character.

But the Most Valuable Player award goes to the group of shipwrecked nobles on whom Prospera seeks revenge. Antonio and Alonso find themselves stranded alongside the King’s brother, Sebastian (Alan Cumming) and Gonzalo (Tom Conti), the one lord who aided Prospera in her escape. These lords’ scenes are not only well blocked, but also well acted: Although Strathairn’s Alonso is overshadowed by the electric dynamics between Cooper, Cumming and Conti, he delivers a solid performance as the stoic father who has lost hope of finding his son alive. Additionally, Conti’s somewhat doddering Gonzalo is a perfect foil for the snarky Cumming, who fits into his role almost too perfectly.

Although Mirren holds her own as Prospera, the ensemble commands more attention, and while the visuals catch the viewer’s eye, the actors ultimately carry the film. Indeed, one of the highlights ofThe Tempest was the opening scene in which the storm destroys the ship carrying the Italian nobles. In the end, the relative simplicity of the acting in the scene was far more captivating than the dramatic monologues and songs recited over surreal images.