Despite some excellent performances, Julie Taymor’s take on Shakespeare’s swan song doesn’t quite work.
SPOILERS AHEAD!!! SPOILERS AHEAD!!! SPOILERS AHEAD!!!
I love Julie Taymor. I don’t always love her movies.
Watching her lavish new adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest brought me back to a lot of things — my adoration of the play, my impatience with the play, my early days writing for CC2K. I also found myself reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of film versus theater and how they challenge filmmakers who try to usher Shakespeare’s plays onto the screen.
I also found myself contemplating the role of special effects in moviemaking and how computer-generated effects still have the capacity to fail so utterly. I hate to shine so harsh a light on the special effects in a Shakespeare movie, but The Tempest is packed with some jaw-droppingly bad ones. They got in the way, when they should have helped the movie soar.
So let’s talk about the movie. Julie Taymor made her name on the stage, where she directed intense classical fare that included elements of puppetry as well as elaborate costume design. Her resume features work as the puppetry director for Oedipus Rex as well as an earlier production of The Tempest. She became a superstar when Disney tapped her to bring the animated feature The Lion King to the Broadway stage. I’m sorry to say I’ve never seen her production, but it’s known for its excellent stagecraft and abstract imagery.
So she’s a rare creature — a serious artist who’s also commercially viable.
But her movies perplex me. Believe me, I don’t expect movies to adhere to any set format or standard, and when it comes to Shakespeare, that guy didn’t need no stinking three-act structure. He was working in an older format and on a wavelength that most mere mortals can only wonder at.
Taymor is, too. Again, I’ve never seen any of her stage productions, but I’ve seen lot of photos from her earlier work, and her movies reflect the same high-energy, jittery, bursting-at-the-seams imagination on display in her stage productions. Here’s the thing, though — I’m not sure her sensibility is entirely suited for movies, although I wouldn’t for a moment want her to stop making movies.
I do, however, submit that The Tempest is the least satisfactory outing from Taymor. Here’s why:
I feel like Taymor builds her Shakespeare films around set-pieces and not the story.
OK, I’m aiming at a small rhetorical target here. Years ago, one of the first big essays I wrote for CC2K was an extended review of Taymor’s cinematic adaptation of Titus Andronicus, aka Titus. My essay mushroomed into a larger comparison between Taymor’s movie and Kenneth Branagh’s film of Hamlet. At the time, I strongly favored Taymor’s movie and I still do.
But Titus hasn’t aged well for me. (Full disclosure: I directed a production of Titus Andronicus in college, so I was very likely still enamored of the play itself when I saw Taymor’s movie way back when.) I rewatched it a few times recently, and I found myself bored much more often than I would’ve liked. Titus suffers from a halting pace that misfires around crucial scenes in the play. I realize that such problems could very well be blamed on the writer — after all, this is considered to be Shakespeare’s weakest play — but I can’t lay all the blame on Shakespeare. Taymor inserts several abstract asides into her film — if memory serves, the promotional material for the flick called them “penny arcade nightmares” — and as fascinating as they are to behold, they weigh down the play, which despite its many shortcomings, benefits from a headlong pace — the entire 30-page first act unspools over the course of one madcap scene.
And Taymor’s penchant for set-pieces and bold design concepts isn’t limited to her penny-arcade nightmares. Titus features several such interludes, including the opening march of soldiers, an extended storyline about poor Lavinia’s missing hands, various images of the amoral Goths, as well as other miscellaneous shenanigans.
That said, let’s pause a moment and note something: I’m not complaining. Taymor packs a metric shit-ton of fantastic imagery into Titus, and all of its goes toward convincing the average skeptical audience member that there’s more to Shakespeare’s first tragedy than a cursory glance would reveal. It’s a bawdy, bold, brash play with great dramatic value, even if it’s fundamentally Elizabethan torture-porn. It’s still great.
Unfortunately, the set-pieces in The Tempest almost exclusively fell flat for me, and as opposed to Titus, there weren’t nearly as many. Before I go on, let me offer a slightly expanded definition of “set-piece”: When I think of a set-piece, I’m usually thinking about an action scene or an important scene that unfolds in a specific, memorable setting. (I doubt I’m straying far from the textbook definition, but I want to be clear.) So for me, a set-piece could be anything from the truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark to the climactic sequence in Sneakers. It could also refer to a single, specific setting where key action unfolds — the Temple of Doom, the garbage smasher in Star Wars.
In The Tempest, I feel like Taymor based her directorial rhythms on the cool images that emerged from each scene, and if a cool image didn’t emerge from it, the scene didn’t get any, which left the audience stuck with actors on a series of boring Hawaii locales. By contrast, Titus featured as much world-building as a Frank Herbert novel. Taymor crammed that movie full of pan-epochal imagery that incorporated everything from tanks to horse-drawn carriages to fucking popemobiles. It had it all — and it all held together. Taymor set Titus on a parallel world — an earth where the Roman empire had survived into the modern era as an aging, unwieldy, top-heavy, steampunk version of its former glorious self.
Phew. I’m opening myself up to some very righteous criticism here, so let me hasten to explain what I mean: A sensible reader could very well say that I expect Taymor to pack her movies with the same level of bold design as she did in Titus, regardless of what the story calls for. That same sensible reader could further argue that I can’t focus on the words of the mighty William Shakespeare unless the screen (or the stage) is packed with enough bells and whistles to keep my dizzy little brain occupied.
That sensible reader might not be far off, but let me offer this:
The original play The Tempest is a mixed bag with a great many boring stretches, and any stage or film adaptation of it could stand to be aware of that.
Oh, I know. Blasphemy. How dare he. What nerve.
Listen, if there’s one message I’d like to impart as a CC2K writer, it’s that there are no gods. Not in the world of art. To be sure, there are statesmen, vicars, potentates and monarchs — but no gods. In art, there are no infallible practitioners, no one above critique and dialogue, and that includes the great William Shakespeare. His majestic canon includes countless “funny” characters and scenes that aren’t funny at all, unnecessary storylines and the occasional bloated scene. (I also think he was an anti-Semite, but that’s a different discussion.)
None of that is to suggest that these unfunny characters can’t be funny or that a good director can’t find new reasons for those seemingly unnecessary elements to exist, but I submit that we can talk frankly about Shakespeare’s shortcomings while still on our knees, shielding our eyes from the magnificence of his plays.
So, here’s the deal: The Tempest ain’t perfect. Far from it. Its first major scene is an exposition dump so boring that the lead character jokes about it, and two entire wings of the story — the subplot with the play’s two villains and the love story between Miranda (Felicity Jones) and Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) — can be skipped without the play losing an ounce of its power.
It’s funny — while reflecting on The Tempest, I thought of a conversation I had recently with a former Northwestern University acting teacher, David Downs. Over his illustrious career in the famed NU theater program, Downs taught many of my alma mater’s most famous alums (including Taymor player Harry Lennix), and among other activities, he currently maintains a great blog in which he answers questions about theater and acting — all in great detail and with rollicking energy.
Anyway, in a recent post, Downs entertained a question that dealt with the (supposed) messiness of Hamlet. His post is well worth a full read, but in a related conversation with me, Downs pointed out that surprisingly few people can actually recount the full plot of Hamlet from start to finish. (I tried it myself and got lost somewhere in act two.) I can’t speak for everyone, but in my case, I remember Hamlet more as a highlight reel than as a full experience. In his blog, Downs argues that many theater professionals get hung up on the plot:
I think the messiness and the sense of faulty construction come because readings and too many productions don’t actually focus on much more than the plot–and for productions, usually in trimmed down versions meant to clarify the plot so much that they lose sight of what it’s all about. And it is in the “what it’s all about” thrust of the play that you find the connective tissue that takes the play with a sense of mounting inevitability from beginning to end.
I don’t mean to draw a straight line from Hamlet to The Tempest, and I also don’t mean to conflate any of Downs’ thoughts about Hamlet with my thoughts on The Tempest. I’m just trying to give you an idea of my thought process when I try to parse Taymor’s movie, which feels more like a jumble of loosely jointed scenes and less like a full narrative. Part of that is the play’s fault, but I sense the same problems in both Titus and The Tempest. Both plays sparked Taymor’s imagination, which spilled forth a torrent of great imagery, but in Titus, her overall world-building helped hold the story together, whereas in The Tempest, we’re left with a parade of great actors performing against a succession of drab backdrops, all of it punctuated with the occasional burst of abstract imagery.
And in the case of The Tempest, a lot of that imagery was reliant on computer-generated effects that just didn’t work. I’ll talk about the effects in a moment, but first let’s talk about what I thought worked.
Casting Helen Mirren as a female Prospero (Prospera, in this movie’s world) was a masterstroke, and Mirren delivers the powerful, thoughtful performance we would all expect from one of our greatest living actors.
Taymor also took pains to adjust the play to acknowledge Prospera’s gender. When explaining the circumstances surrounding her exile, Prospera notes that she came into her dukedom after the death of her husband, and she also mentions something about being a witch — specifically a female one. I bow to the great many Shakespearean scholars out there, but neither of those elements is in the original play, and I think Taymor lifted some lines from elsewhere in Shakespeare and plugged them into her screenplay. (I know she lifted one of the songs from Twelfth Night. Side note: I can’t support that practice with greater enthusiasm. In the same spirit that the characters of Joss Whedon or J.J. Abrams inhabit the same universe, I like to think that Shakespeare’s characters inhabit their own universe, and I appreciate the impulse to massage the text of one Shakespeare play by calling on the text of another.) I couldn’t quite figure out what play Taymor borrowed from — and she may have just written it herself — but I’d love to hear from anyone else who may have recognized it.
I also want to take a moment to note Mirren’s beauty, but not in the sense you might think. Mirren has attracted a lot of attention in her later years for her seemingly ageless good looks and bikini bod, and recently, she rightfully unloaded on Hollywood for making such a big deal about it.
We have to let go of this crap. It creates even more pressure on women, and I certainly don’t want to be a part of that. I’m not beautiful; I clean up nice. Why don’t we talk about the fact, for example, that I just did Arthur, and the cinematographer was a woman, the film operator was a woman, the whole camera team were women? That’s where we should be putting our attention. The fact that I look good at the age I am is bloody irrelevant.
Let me offer this: An acting teacher I worked with in L.A. always said that when an actor really loses herself/himself in a scene, their inner beauty will shine through. That teacher was correct. Taymor coaxes a lot of great performances out of her actors in this movie, and happily, her camera lingers on Mirren’s wrinkles, crows-feet and smile lines for shot after beautiful shot, and it’s a rare pleasure to watch some of Shakespeare’s greatest lines activate her inner beauty.
There’s also a moment in the play when the ingénue, Miranda, first sees her love interest, and initially, she doesn’t even recognize what he is. This bit works much better if her only living parent is a woman.
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. Djimon Honsou delivers a rough, brawny Caliban who’s driven to madness with hate. I’m a big fan of Honsou. He’s such a powerful, magnetic performer, and for a guy whose first language isn’t English, he handles the language beautifully. I thought he was great in Michael Bay’s criminally underrated sci-fi parable The Island, in which he plays a high-rent bounty hunter. Go back and watch his performance, and note how he delivers dense sci-fi exposition as skillfully as he talks about his character’s striking history in Africa.
Caliban is one of the great outcast characters from Shakespeare. He roughly fills the same role as Jaques in As You Like It or Malvolio in Twelfth Night — he’s the malcontent who doesn’t get to participate in the happy ending. Like those other great characters, Caliban gets to deliver some of the play’s most memorable lines:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
Suffice it to say, Honsou is up to the task. (Side note: What the hell was up with Caliban’s make-up design? On the posters, it looks like he wears patches of white makeup, but in the film we can see that patches of him are Caucasian. And if I’m not mistaken, as the movie progresses, more of him becomes Caucasian. Can someone confirm this?)
Another notable cast member is comedian Russell Brand, a seemingly true-blue lunatic who exudes rock-star charm while looking like Archie Comics’ Jughead Jones. He’s like a cross between Nigel Tufnel and the Goblin King from Labyrinth who also has access to Katy Perry’s breasts.
Anyway, a mild amount of hoopla was made about Brand’s appearance as the clown Trinculo in this movie, and I have to say: Brand gives us about as good a Trinculo as we’re going to get, and what’s really great about Brand is his willingness to deliver a truly unpleasant, vanity-free performance. Let me explain:
Remember when I said that Shakespeare has a lot of supposedly funny characters that aren’t funny at all? The buffoons in The Tempest — Stephano (Alfred Molina, top-flight as always) and Trinculo — are two such characters. Now, that isn’t to say that their scenes can’t be amusing, but if you hear someone laughing uproariously at every one of their lines, they’re probably just trying to sound smart.
When I consider the comic possibilities of a Shakespearean clown, I’m reminded of what an acting teacher of mine once said when he was ripping me a new asshole for my muggy, piss-poor attempt at Much Ado’s Benedick (not a clown, but the following principle applies).
“Tony, people should smile at this character way more than they laugh at it.”
And although no one’s ever going to mistake me for an expert on theater or acting, that’s my philosophy on Shakespeare’s clowns. Above all else, they should make you smile.
For the most part, Stephano and Trinculo do just that, but that’s not what attracts me to their storyline. When I go to see a production of The Tempest, I want to see some ruminations on the nature (and the abuse) of power. Stephano and Trinculo run into the poor island native Caliban, and in the space of about one Planck time, they metastasize into a cargo cult whose sole cargo is a bottle of booze.
To be sure, there are more lighthearted productions of The Tempest out there that present a more Gollum-like Caliban who’s easier to laugh at, but Taymor wisely gives us a wronged native of the island in Honsou’s Caliban, and in Molina and Brand, she gives us a pair of loathsome figures who eagerly take advantage of the poor bastard. Brand and Molina contribute to this interpretation with their leering, snaggletoothed performances.
Finally, I want to talk about
The special effects
What a disaster. Taymor’s film falls back on dozens of poor special effects shots that camp up the screen. One of the play’s leads, the enslaved spirit Ariel (Ben Whishaw) is presented almost exclusively as a special effect, and although there are some successful images — Ariel’s depiction as a reflection in water stands out — most of Ariel’s shots look like Video Toaster-era first drafts. Many other half-baked effects litter the movie.
For the record: No, I don’t think a film version of The Tempest has to have perfect special effects, but this is Julie Taymor we’re talking about. She specializes in striking imagery and world-building, and I wish she and her team had approached the look and feel of The Tempest from the same place that Darren Aronofsky approached his long-form meditation on death and loss, The Fountain.
To refresh your memory, The Fountain follows a three-tiered story that unfolds over three different time periods (only one of which is actually happening in any kind of literal story sense, if you ask me), and it is the third storyline — the deep-space voyage in the far-flung future — that I want to focus on.
Because of the reduced budget on The Fountain, Aronofsky opted against computer-generated effects and instead called upon highly creative optical effects for his movie. From the Wikipedia page:
Jeremy Dawson and Dan Schrecker, who had provided visual effects for Darren Aronofsky’s π and Requiem for a Dream, returned to The Fountain to help the director with the film’s effects. The pair were assigned with the task of creating as little computer-generated imagery as possible, a difficult task with a third of the film taking place in deep space. Aronofsky chose to avoid effects that would make the film look dated in several decades but instead hold up as well as a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Dawson said, “Using CG is really the easy route because it’s so prevalent and the tools are great. What it did was really force us to come up with creative solutions to solve a lot of our problems.” One creative solution was uncovering Peter Parks, a specialist in macro photography, who had retrieved deep-sea microorganisms and photographed them in 3-D under partial funding from the Bahamas government. Parks brewed chemicals and bacteria together to create reactions that Schrecker and Dawson shot 20,000 feet worth of film of over eight weeks. To create the effects, Peter Parks took advantage of fluid dynamics, which affected the behavior of the substances that he photographed. “When these images are projected on a big screen, you feel like you’re looking at infinity. That’s because the same forces at work in the water–gravitational effects, settlement, refractive indices–are happening in outer space,” Parks said. The specialist’s talent convinced the film’s creative department to go beyond computer-generated imagery and follow Parks’ lead. Instead of millions of dollars for a single special effects sequence, Parks generated all the footage for the film for just $140,000.
I know this is a lot to ask, but I submit that a visual philosophy more in tune with the low-tech, in-camera resourcefulness of The Fountain might have better served Taymor’s vision. To wit:
And I mean to use the word “vision,” because this is a visionary we’re dealing with here. Despite my complaints about the movie, Taymor and her creative team still pack The Tempest with dozens of otherworldly design choices. The tools of Prospera’s magical craft include beakers, vials, feathers and mirrors. The exiled sorceress arranges a mobile of mirrors to bedim the noontide sun.
And in one of the movie’s few triumphant moments, Ariel ambushes Prospera’s captives in the guise of a giant, winged harpy. You can see part of this scene at timestamp 1:39 of the trailer:
That’s more like it. In that scene, we get it all: Beautiful makeup, incredible costume/creature/puppet design, bizarro imagery (note the slight swell of breasts on the androgynous Ariel) and a deft use of special effects.
There’s a lot to admire in Taymor’s film. I just can’t admire all of it.