The thing you've got to recognize going into any Julie Taymor movie is that a certain and sizable percentage of the crazy shit she tries just simply isn't going to work. The Tempest is her fourth theatrical film, following Titus, Frida, and Across the Universe--all pictures with moments of achingly pure beauty and truth, all pictures with moments so goofy as to provoke inappropriate laughter. The good-to-bad ratio varies, and always tips in favor of the good (I'd say Frida is about 90-10, while Universe is more like 60-40), but it's there. One presumes that the kind of risk-taking and experimentation that yield the good are the direct result of the freedom that brings about the bad. This is based purely on my own conjecture, of course.
Her film of Shakespeare's later (and infrequently filmed) play The Tempest slunk in and out of theaters last holiday season to relatively little fanfare; it had the misfortune of timing out around the same time as the rubber neck-inviting Broadway car wreck known as Taymor's production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Its obscurity is unfortunate; this is a fine and inventive Shakespeare adaptation, with some terrific performances. And, yes, some goofy moments.
Taymor's screenplay takes one giant liberty with the original text: she transforms the play's central figure, the exiled Duke of Milan called Prospero, into the female character of his widow Prospera. It's a risky move, but it plays; the character's sorcery is well-translated to witchcraft, and the political machinations that marooned her and her daughter Miranda onto the island setting make sense. And she's played by Helen Mirren, which goes a long way towards making the switch palpable.
That's not the only unique read that Taymor brings to the material. Modern productions tend to play up the "monster" angle of Caliban's character more than the "slave" one; she takes the latter idea quite literally, casting the great Djimon Hounsou and mining the character's power and complexity to its fullest. Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising member of the cast is Russell Brand, but he proves surprisingly adroit in the role--he sounds far more at ease with the Shakespearean dialogue than, say, Chris Cooper. Brand isn't intimidated by the language, managing to convey the meaning and hit the comic beats with aplomb. He and co-star Alfred Molina (with whom he shares most of his scenes) make for a terrific, Laurel-and-Hardy style low-comedy team.
When the film falters, it is usually due to the (c'mon, it's okay to say it) weaknesses in the original script, which juggles several different styles and tones, not always successfully. The romantic scenes between the young ingénues are traditionally dull as toast, and Reeve Carney (as Ferdinand) is a pretty empty vessel. But the passionate and heartfelt line readings of Felicity Jones (as Miranda) go a long way towards selling those scenes. The subplot of Alonzo (David Straithairn) and his crew (Cooper, Tom Conti, and Alan Cumming) is uneven as well, though their scenes build in effectiveness as the picture progresses.
The text, with all of its magic and spells and so forth, is ideal for Taymor's visual wizardry (Mirren's powerful, green-screen-augmented monologues are a highlight). Her directorial missteps range from small moments--an early shock-zoom on Mirren's screaming face--to entire sequences, like Ariel's cartoony description of the storm or the musical interludes, which we are ready to be over, it seems, far sooner than Taymor is.
Video & Audio:
As with all of Taymor's work, The Tempest is visually sumptuous, and the rich MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer more than does it justice. The bright colors pop, when present (there's a lot of brown and black in the color scheme); skin tones are natural and detail work is impeccable (the cracks of Caliban's skin, the gleaming zippers of the costumes). The English 5.1 DTS-HD audio track keeps the Shakespearean dialogue squeaky-clean, but what impresses are the environmental sounds (the roaring title storm, the crashing magic of Prospera's spells, the buzzing bees around Trinculo and Stephano), which are lively and immersive. Overall, a first-rate technical presentation.
Spanish and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are also available, as are English, English SDH, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles.
The behind-the-scenes film "Raising The Tempest" (1:06:06) is the disc's finest bonus feature--lengthy, detailed, and well-crafted, it's an all-access look at the entirety of the film's production, from conception through execution. Set footage is copious, interviews are plentiful, and insights flow freely; it's an outstanding extra.
Taymor provides an Audio Commentary that is quite good as well, speaking freely yet incisively about the play and her interpretation of it. Another commentary is presented by Shakespeare experts Virginia Vaughan and Jonathan Bate, who are (understandably) a bit drier, but provide plenty of interesting analysis.
A Russell Brand Rehearsal Riff (4:32) shows Taymor interviewing Brand (with Molina kibitzing) on the first day of rehearsal about his character. Asked one question, he rattles on for about four minutes at a lightning-fast pace; it's kind of amazing. "Julie & Cast: Inside the L.A. Rehearsals" (13:34) finds Tamor, Brand, Molina, and Honsou working their scenes in October 2008.
A Music Video (3:22) for the closing credits song "O Mistress Mine" closes out the bonus features.
Those little missteps don't wreck The Tempest, by any stretch, but they do take us out of the experience for a few seconds or a few minutes--serving as a reminder that, yes, we are watching the work of a visionary, but one who hasn't quite figured out yet how to get out of her own way, or how to separate the good ideas from the bad. Still, genuine visionaries are hard to find in Hollywood these days, and though her Tempest may be flawed, it is infinitely more interesting than the safe, pat, formula hackwork that too often buries a unique movie like this one.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.