The effects are dazzling, the cast is stellar, the play is timeless, the movie is wretched.
Director Julie Taymor attacks "The Tempest" as if she's pursuing a Lifetime Achievement Award for discordant special effects. The play is a cyclone of wizardly imagery, and the filmmakers take that as license for mad visual excess. The result isn't just over-the-top. It's over-the-top-of-the-top.
Marooned in the eye of this storm-tossed production and striving heroically to rescue it is Helen Mirren, stupendous as the sorceress Prospera. In this gender-shifting adaptation, the play's male protagonist has become a duchess of Milan, now exiled to a barren island with her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones). Their companions are the air spirit Ariel (Ben Whishaw) and earthy, deformed Caliban (Djimon Hounsou). A shipwreck brings ashore King Alonso (David Straithairn), who banished Prospera, and his son Prince Ferdinand (Reeve Carney), the man of Miranda's dreams.
Taymor, who came to prominence with her stylized puppet-theater staging of Disney's "The Lion King" (and is currently struggling to salvage her troubled Broadway Spider-Man musical) tells the tale by rote. Her work here isn't experimental, merely showy. Lacking the parlor tricks available to filmmakers, Shakespeare had to rely on genius. His play, with its thicket of dramatic, comic, fantastic and romantic plots, soars on the power, sweep and multilayered density of exquisite poetry. Taymor too rarely employs her most magical special effect, Mirren's face in close-up. She has the gorgeous diction that brings Elizabethan language to life, and a gift of almost telepathic expressiveness.
The same can't be said for Straithairn, who coasts through his role like a fogbound ship on auto-pilot. Hounsou mostly bellows his lines at top volume while Whishaw lisps and whispers. Of all the eclectic cast (including the simpering young lovers, hambones Russell Brand and Alfred Molina as fools and Chris Cooper, whose Missouri drawl mangles 17th-century speech), Whishaw is the unluckiest. Taymor filmed him separately from Mirren, optically combining their performances after the fact. This allows the nude Whishaw to flutter around the screen like Tinker Bell, but kills whatever spark the actors might have generated through physical interplay. Elliot Goldenthal's overbearing guitar-rock soundtrack swamps Whishaw's speeches. And Taymor outfits him with bared prosthetic breasts for half his scenes, to accentuate Ariel's androgynous nature. Thanks for the visual, but you shouldn't have. Really. It's yet another miscalculation in a film that should leave us bedazzled but merely renders us dazed.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186