Julie Taymor has a theater director’s eye for how movies work. This is not a compliment.
After making an unintentional laugh riot out of the Beatles’ back catalog with 2007’s embarrassing Across The Universe, Taymor retreats to the safe haven of Stratford-On-Avon; her first and least objectionable feature Titus also happened to be scripted by some up-and-coming screenwriter named Bill Shakespeare.
The Tempest’s most striking innovation turns out to be a non-starter. Prospero is now Prospera, played by Helen Mirren, but there’s shockingly little insight or commentary gained by the gender swap—Mirren just kind of acts like a dude in drag. As the exiled sorceress conjuring spells and sea storms in a revenge plot against scummy, usurping brother Antonio (Chris Cooper), Dame Helen stomps and hollers in iambic pentameter, generating little sympathy while struggling to be heard within a terrible sound mix.
The Tempest isn’t an easy nut to crack—even the best adaptations struggle with the fantastical elements and the unwieldy structure, which spends an awful lot of time on an awful lot of disparate characters wandering around an island. Emphasizing the harshness of the environment, Taymor and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh have shot their Hawaiian locations in the ugliest fashion imaginable, all gloomy, overcast skies and dreary natural light. This choice, as well as the jittery, handheld camerawork, are presumably intended to ground the tale’s supernatural flourishes, but instead just call even more attention to the gaudy CGI creations.
As with most Shakespeare flicks, the suspense is in seeing which contemporary actors can pull off the lingo and who gets hung up. Mirren can of course do this in her sleep, but Cooper is sadly outmatched by the verse, at times painfully struggling with his lines. As Caliban, Djimon Hounsou continues his unfortunate career trajectory of almost exclusively playing slaves. Alfred Molina eases into the jovial drunkard Stephano, but is unfortunately paired with the caterwauling Russell Brand as the fool Trinculo. Charged with a good deal of physical comedy that Taymor has no idea how to stage for the camera, Brand mugs it up in often-excruciating close-ups, bellowing his lines with so little discernable understanding of the text that you wonder if he just learned them phonetically.