I finally did it, and gave in—after Much Ado, I came to The Tempest. It was… mixed.
A lot of films are ruined by bad acting or a poor script, despite the huge amount spent on special effects, costumes and set design (Suicide Squad at least tried, though failed, to establish something approaching an aesthetic, despite the awfully confused and sometimes racist script). Not so The Tempest, which manages to mess up CGI in a fantastically inept fashion, despite decent performances from its actors and an obviously excellent set of lines for them to say.
Poor Ben Whishaw has pretty much all of his expression erased as Ariel. Usually, the air spirit would have made a perfect match for Whishaw, a delicate actor who can be effeminate if he wants to, but here any real benefit from this is lost by cloaking him in weird computer-generated mists of fire or rainclouds that make the visualizer on iTunes circa 2007 look like an impressive feat of visual magic. Ariel is where Prospero’s illusions and trickery should be expressed the strongest, and instead the film’s CGI drags it down, making it the weakest aspect of the entire production. The original score comes in a close second, sounding as it does like it was composed using the default instrumentals on GarageBand.
The Tempest is also edited badly, with inexplicable zooms mid-shot to emphasize lines that Shakespeare had already given enough weight. IT’S THE CINEMATIC EQUIVALENT OF PUTTING A SENTENCE IN CAPITALS WHEN THE POINT COULD EASILY HAVE BEEN MADE IN LOWER CASE. Heavy-handed doesn’t even begin to cover the half of it.
There are some (almost) good points. The Tempest’s casting is considered; the most notable decision being Helen Mirren’s female Prospero. A part of me wants to shrug and go “Sure, whatever” when I see a “fresh” take on a play that has been put on for over 400 years, and updating Shakespeare is nothing unusual (just look at Phyllida Lloyd if you want something really new), but it’s nothing to sneer at either. Prospero being a woman throws up some interesting-ish questions about power and gender in the Renaissance, and perceptions of female rulers, but nothing too substantial or controversial. Perhaps, if one recasts Prospero, one should go the whole hog and recast other parts, or change the setting from the island. Anyway. Mirren owns the role and her inclusion is more than justified many times over, as you would expect. Often, she seems to hold entire scenes together. Prospera works.
Russell Brand is fun enough as Stephano or Trinculo (does it matter which?), and Djimon Honsou’s Caliban is suitably threatening. In fact, almost every role is at least passable. The only exception—and boy, what an exception—is Reeve Carney’s Ferdinand, who single-handedly ruined the film for me. He looks like the secret Jonas Brother who wasn’t in the band. He’s all tank tops, shit hair, bum-fluff tache and gormless expressions, like a budget James Franco mixed with a budget Jared Leto, churned out by a teen idol factory and missing any redeeming features of either as a result. Felicity Jones’s Miranda shows him up for a non-actor in every scene despite the character not having too much to work with in the original play, and sure enough, a quick Google reveals him as such. His most notable role? As the pretty boy in the video for Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble”. He should stick to non-speaking parts.
All in all, The Tempest is rarely very exciting, but it’s also rarely objectionable. It’s a bit nothingy, and I still don’t think the source material has been given the cinematic treatment it deserves. So what could be improved?
Visually, I would have liked to see someone like Guillermo del Toro try his hand at this. Caliban looking like Pan from Pan’s Labyrinth would have worked well; a sort of more depraved and grubby satyr character. Or Ben Wheatley, who could bring those occult vibes that he does so well to it. There are other mythical or Renaissance works of fiction that deserve more recent adaptation, incidentally. I’d like to see Lars von Trier do an all-wailing, all-fornicating version of The Bacchae, for example, or maybe Dante’s Inferno, and perhaps Pedro Almodóvar could take on the gender politics of The Taming of the Shrew or Twelfth Night (this would be more exciting than the simple Prospero gender switch).
There’s a world of opportunity in the language, mythos, comedy and tragedy of Shakespeare. Many in the past, whether in English or not, were captivated by the Bard. Akira Kurosawa made Throne of Blood based on Macbeth and Ran based on King Lear. There’s so much to be brought forward and made accessible to non-theatre-goers (and let’s face it: why would you go to the theatre when you could go watch a film?)—and yet good Shakespeare/classical theatre and literature adaptations are few and far between, with perhaps a couple per decade. We need some more.
There’s the gauntlet, thrown down. I’m not holding my breath.
Edit: have had a complaint that Felicity Jones didn’t feature as the photo for this post. While the Helen Mirren picture was more dramatic and I already used her for Rogue One, I will do anything for approval and slightly more hits, so here we go.