Perhaps no Shakespeare play better lends itself to screen spectacle than The Tempest, generally regarded as the Bard's valedictory play. Now that we are in the age of CGI, the play's magic and ethereality can be set free on screen in ways that capitalize on liberation from the stage and avoid the pitfall of silliness more literal depictions can fail to sidestep. On the other hand, CGI's pitfall is overindulgence, and The Tempest is a celebration of the stage's ability to access the mind's eye through the power of poetry and transcendent acting. And so it is that Julie Taymor's creditable adaptation of Shakespeare's classic drama from 1610 is also something of a mixed bag (of tricks).
The Tempest tells of Prospero—here gender-flipped to Prospera (Helen Mirren)—the deposed Duke of Milan. Now practicing sorcery on a remote island, Prospera lives with her pretty young daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones), airy servant spirit Ariel (Ben Whishaw), and slave monster Caliban (Djimon Hounsou). Their functional dysfunctionality begins to fall to pieces with the arrival of shipwrecked sailors: Prospera's disloyal brother Antonio (Chris Cooper), responsible for his sister's exile; co-conspirator King Alonso of Naples (David Strathairn); Alonso's morally weak brother (Alan Cumming's Sebastian) and son Ferdinand (Reeve Carney of Taymor's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark); and Alonso's good-hearted advisor, Gonzalo (Tom Conti), along with the clownish Stephano (Alfred Molina) and Trinculo (Russell Brand). To the latter, Caliban ties his hopes of overthrowing his mistress; meanwhile, Miranda and Ferdinand meet, profess love, and plan marriage as Prospera employs Ariel to torment those responsible for her exile.
The chief virtue of Taymor's Tempest is the clarity of the Shakesperean language, which she has ruthlessly abridged to meet a running time well shy of the two-hour mark. Truth be told, the film would benefit from greater length, giving it a chance to breathe and convince us of hairpin character turns; Taymor fails to hit a stride that "takes us" with her—failing on storytelling terms, this is far from the most ingratiating Shakespeare you'll see. Like a lot of screen Shakespeare, this Tempest is a haven for scavengers, with some nifty ideas and effective moments (Carney's best moment comes in song) scattered around the exotic Hawaiian landscape. Taymor's Titus struck a terrific balance between ripe emotion and widescreen spectacle, lifting its wicked revenger's drama to operatic heights, but her Tempest makes a grand play feel awkwardly out of scale—instead of blowing up the play, Taymor seems shrunk by it.
Though Taymor has peopled her enterprise reasonably well (don't listen to those throwing around the word "miscast"), the film fails to yield any one performance memorable enough to treasure, which is some kind of a crime for a Shakespeare film. Mirren is typically striking, and certainly the "Prospera" choice is a valid one, but actor and director in tandem fail to foster as intimate a relationship between character and audience as Anthony Hopkins found with Taymor in Titus. Not trusting the words or her actors to tell the story, Taymor makes shambling photographic choices, occasionally succumbs to hyperactive editing, and encourages special effects and music that at times seem, oddly, thirty years dated (and, to be fair, at other times right up to modern standards). Beware, in particular, any scene when the electric guitars kick in, courtesy of composer Elliot Goldenthal (Sandy Powell's Oscar-nominated costumes here also aren't to my taste, but to each her own). In short, Taymor tries a little too hard, neither breaking nor broken by the play, but ultimately losing the wrestling match.
On Blu-ray from Touchstone Home Entertainment, The Tempest whips up some magic. The hi-def image honors the filmmakers' intent with precision contrast and revealing detail. The newly minted picture is, of course, completely clean, with richly rendered color and a total absence of compression artifacts. Sound comes in a precision DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix with impeccable discrete separation and directionality for a total immersion in Prospera's island world: the opening stormy seas sequence and later bursts of magic lend themselves to sonic intensity, and the musical score gets its best opportunity to impress, with dialogue always remaining crucially prioritized.
Bonus features lead off with two terrific supplementary audio tracks: an audio commentary by director Julie Taymor and a Shakespeare Experts Audio Commentary with Clark University professor Virginia Mason Vaughan and University of Warwick professor Jonathan Bate.
"Raising The Tempest" (1:06:06, HD) gives a fantastic behind-the-scenes look at Taymor'slatest Shakespeare adaptation from conception to execution, including glimpses of rehearsals and set footage from production. Cast and crew interviews enlighten as to approach and characterization, as well as entertaining in the case of jokey Russell Brand.
"Julie & Cast: Inside the L.A. Rehearsals" (13:34, HD) expands our access to 2008 rehearsals with Taymor, Brand, Alfred Molina and Djimon Hounsou.
"Russell Brand Rehearsal Riff" (4:32, HD) finds Taymor quizzing an in-character Brand.
The "Music Video" (3:22, HD) that rounds out the disc is “Mistress Mine," performed by actor Reeve Carney.
Kudos to Disney for including some excellent bonus features, making this a highly compelling purchase for Shakespeare buffs, Taymor fans, and enthusiasts of the cast.
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