The Tempest, Greenwich Picturehouse, 14 March 2011
A sandcastle is seen in close-up and is soon revealed to be held in the palm of someone’s hand. We are teased by the illusory size of the castle and then see it crumble to nothing as the onset of heavy rain causes the sandcastle to disintegrate.
Julie Taymor’s film version of The Tempest starts out quite well. This thoughtful and artistic beginning refers forward to “our revels now are ended” in which we are told about the towers, palaces and temples that dissolve “leaving not a wrack behind”.
It seems to offer the prospect of more such allusions, internal references and intelligent reflection.
But from this point on the initial promise of the film also crumbles like a sandcastle in a storm.
The hand is Miranda’s and, as we see the scenes of panic onboard the storm-tossed ship, she runs to the edge of a promontory. There she finds her mother Prospera, the exiled Duke of Milan, played by Helen Mirren.
Mirren grits her teeth and ejects a heartfelt shriek as, with her staff held above her head, she wills the ship to sink beneath the waves.
Back in her cell, Prospera provides the long, expository back story for Miranda’s and our benefit. Much of this is done in voiceover as we see the events described.
The story is tweaked to allow for Prospera’s gender and involves adding to Shakespeare’s text to include a reference to Prospera’s father and how his death led to her inheriting the dukedom.
A major flaw with the film is that this key decision, to cast Helen Mirren as a female Prospera, does not work.
It is difficult to say whether this is something inherent in a female Prospera or simply Mirren in the role. Perhaps in the capable hands of someone like Fiona Shaw, this could have been made to work.
Mirren spends a lot of time looking into the distance and speaking her lines as if reading them off a board. The disconcerting effect of this is not helped by the occasional unwarranted close-up of her eyes. The failure of the central character to hold our interest underscores the other faults in the film rather than drawing attention away from them.
Some of the failure must be the fault of the direction. At the end of the film, for example, Prospera exchanges long but strangely meaningless stares with Caliban, who grimaces and departs up a banister-less stairway and out of her cell. This is all meant to signify something, but the film does not provide much of clue as to precisely what.
This is a shame because much of the acting by the rest of the cast is quite good. Tom Conti’s Gonzalo is incredibly likeable and convincing. The combination of Russell Brand and Alfred Molina as Trinculo and Stephano works well, with Brand’s raffishness ideally suited to the role.
Ferdinand and Miranda are passable as the young couple in love. The song from Twelfth Night “O Mistress Mine” is sung by Ferdinand to his love when they pledge their devotion to each other.
Caliban awakens in a pit strewn with what look like beer cans, a hint that he has indeed been introduce to water with berries in it. His face is two-tone with one section pale white, the eye within it a distinctive blue colour, this in contrast to the black skin and brown eye of the other half.
This dual ethnicity in one body provides a hint at the universality of the character’s nature, the fact that Caliban is not in essence of any one race. The rest of his bulky frame seems encrusted with cracks as if he is made of earth.
All of this demonstrates that some careful consideration has been given to the presentation of some of the key characters.
The character of Ariel on the other hand is at the centre of the other significant flaw in the film.
He is only ever seen as a translucent graphically enhanced figure. His initial appearance is a jarring CGI overload that seems inconsistent with the rest of the film. A transparent naked figure shoots out of a pond and Prospera quizzes it about the tempest. A logical inconsistency arises here because we saw Prospera watching the progress of her spell from the cliff top. We see a retrospective of Ariel at work on the ship, which looks spectacular but it is indicative of problems to come.
The deployment of computer graphics means that the film works at two speeds. It alternates between a simple depiction of scenes as played on the stage and overblown CGI sequences complete with pumping music. These are jammed into the narrative whenever the text’s stage directions give an excuse for the big box of graphic tricks to be opened.
The contrast when normality is resumed is very noticeable. We go from visually stunning flights of fancy, such as Ariel’s harpy and the fiery hellhounds chasing Caliban’s gang, back to bog standard camera shots of people acting as if on stage. There is no smoothing of the edges or consistent use of CGI to create coherence across the film.
The pageant of Iris, Ceres and Juno is replaced by a puzzling sequence of zodiacal symbols that seemed clumsily inserted, with no indication that Ferdinand and Miranda are witnessing it.
Compared with much else of what we see, the sequence in which Caliban is found by Trinculo and Stephano is like a filmed street theatre production of the play.
Similarly the scene in which Alonso discovers Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess reveals them hidden in an alcove, which is a surprisingly theatrical choice given the possibilities offered by film.
Rather than re-imagine the play for the cinema, this film preserves the structure of a simple stage version and then tries to make it more exciting by selective, excessive use of computer graphics to create an ugly hybrid.
The play’s stage directions indicating special effects such as harpies and storms were intended to create a modicum of spectacle in an otherwise static theatrical version. The technology of the theatre both past and present creates momentary excitement that does not overwhelm the senses.
Mistaking these stage directions for cues to unleash the latest in CGI effects creates this gross misbalance in the tone of the film.
With most of the CGI centred on Ariel there are points where the rest of the film looks only half-heartedly spiced with graphics. More even application of CGI would have made for a more coherent result.
The banquet sequence has a very obvious and clunky CGI table superimposed on Hawaii’s rocky landscape. As one of the main stage effects in the play, it needed to be slightly more mysterious and ethereal.
This compares poorly with a retrospective (and unnecessary) graphic-intensive scene showing the imprisonment of Ariel in a pine tree by Sycorax.
Prospera’s magic at times looks particularly underpowered. The magic circle drawn with her staff in the final act is a simple ring of quite modest flame that is soon extinguished.
The culmination of her plan, bringing her enemies within her grasp could have benefited from something more spectacular. But what we get is a cheap magician’s trick with effects from a joke shop.
The nobles brought into this magic circle then freeze in position as they often do in stage productions. Again, it is possible to imagine much more complex graphic trickery employed here to create the feeling of magic powers at work.
Prospera finally casts her staff off a cliff into the ocean. But this looks quite tawdry as the staff bounces inelegantly off the rock face and spins downwards with little ceremony.
The film ends with images of books sinking below the waves. Mirren half-sings Prospera’s closing soliloquy, with key segments repeated to stretch it out to the length of the credits.
Despite its flaws the film does contain some enjoyable moments. I was captivated by Caliban’s speech describing the music of the isle culminating in that glorious line “that when I waked, I cried to dream again. Ariel’s ventriloquism causing problems for Trinculo was one of the few instances where the graphics were in proportion to the action.
But otherwise, pointing a camera at a play and then trying to make a movie out of it proved not to be a recipe for success. No wonder, then, that film makers have in the past simply taken the basics of the story and used all the features of cinema to go beyond a simple record of the play text. This film tries to do both and falls between those two stools.
It is easy to imagine a better version of this piece: one with more of the characteristics and tone of an art-house film, rather than an unsophisticated multiplex movie. One suspects that ambitions in the former direction were scuppered by commercial pressures pulling it in the other.
This cinematic outing of The Tempest also serves to highlight the superiority of filmed versions of stage productions such as the Hamlet and Macbeth produced by Illuminations.
By the time it reached the UK the film only had a very limited release in around a dozen cinemas. On the Monday night I saw it in Greenwich there were a total of dozen people in the audience, which made the heroic efforts of Mirren and Brand to publicise it on the chat show circuit look a little in vain.