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During the Q&A following the New York Film Festival screening of her new film The Tempest last Thursday, Julie Taymor dropped influence after influence when explaining her vision for the film; to hear her tell it, everything from Greek mythology to the racist glorification of "The Other" was considered as she put together her adaptation of Shakespeare's supernatural comedy. In a way that eclecticism reflects the Bard himself-- as Taymor points out, there are even some speeches in The Tempest lifted entirely from earlier work-- but lucky for centuries of theatergoers, Shakespeare didn't have a CGI budget and costume designer Sandy Powell to help him take that wide range of influences into complete overkill.
Taymor, on the other hand, has both of those things, along with a coterie of talented actors willing to undergo her crazy journey and far too many wrong-headed ideas about how to make Shakespeare interesting and accessible to a modern audience. Subbing in visual spectacle and name-brand stars for actual engagement with the text or the audience, The Tempest is as noisy and frantic as the storm of the title, but with virtually nothing to add to the Shakespeare's original, beguiling work.
Stuck in the center of it all and doing her damnedest to make it work is Helen Mirren as the gender-switched Prospera, ruler of the island following her exile from Milan and mother to Miranda (Felicity Jones), who has lived her life on the island and has never seen a man other than Caliban (Djimon Hounsu), the island native whom Prospera has enslaved. After conjuring up a giant storm that sinks a ship carrying her traitorous brother (Chris Cooper), Prospera blesses the instant love between Miranda and marooned Prince Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) but fends off attempts at her throne not just by her brother and nobleman Sebastian (Alan Cumming), but a pair of fools (Alfred Molina and Russell Brand) who team up with Caliban to overthrow the island.
When Shakespearean comedy is done well, all these intertwined, frequently goofy plots feel part of the same machine, moving in tandem to lead to the fifth-act climax that sets things right. But the various plots of Taymor's The Tempest simply happen as if the camera had nowhere else to be; for all her flights into physical comedy and surreal CGI-aided fantasy, Taymor's storytelling never amounts to more than a rote recounting of the scenes in order. The weird happenings of The Tempest, from Prospera's sorcery to the existence of the sprite Ariel (Ben Whishaw), naturally feel grounded on the stage, embodied by actors and physical props sharing the audience's space; thrown up on the screen at a remove, it all seems silly and slightly meaningless.
That doesn't mean she's not trying, of course-- Prospera has any number of monologues about power and children and the cosmos, aided sometimes by animation and swirling cameras and other times, much more successfully, by Mirren's weathered and beautiful face. But The Tempest is one of those Shakespeare stories, like so many others, where everything turns out well in the end even though it really shouldn't. It is up to the adapter to give those events meaning, to make us root hard for Miranda and Ferdinand's instant love, or feel Prospera's mixed feelings at giving up her island power for the sake of her daughter. Taymor presents Shakespeare's plot like a high school teacher insisting it all has meaning, dammit, and slathers on visuals and costumes as if it will add the verve the story lacks.
While no one beyond Mirren really gets a chance to do much worthwhile, special attention must be paid to Whishaw, a fantastic actor with the willowy, shrinking violent demeanor to perfectly play the ethereal Ariel. But by capturing Whishaw and a separate stage and digitally inserting him into all his scenes with Mirren, Taymor completely erases any energy that could have existed between them, to the point that sometimes the actors' eyelines don't even match. Whishaw spends less time acting than flitting from one side of the screen to another, like every other wasted talent here using all his physical energy to make up for what the movie around him lacks. Sadly, it's a job bigger than him and all the actors combined.