Film Review: Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” Technologically Enhanced

Julie Taymor’s film version of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest is conclusive proof that just because we can do something with technology does not mean that we should. Less is often more, and one great text in hand is worth a dozen computers in the mix. And what was the director thinking with the racist portrayal of Caliban?

Helen Mirren is Prospera, almost as vulnerable as she is magical, in Julie Taymor's THE TEMPEST

By Joann Green Breuer

Poor William. Not only do a number of his present-day readers believe he did not write those plays, but an even greater proportion of directors of them have decided that he didn’t quite mean what he (she?) said. They have their will, often willy nilly, pun intended.

Now the acclaimed stage and film director Julie Taymor has created her own cinematic The Tempest, after mounting three versions in live theater. For much of the film, she is seduced by the spectacle of special effects, which here are well over the top of any of her theatrical over the tops. She casts the great Helen Mirren as the play’s usurped magic maker, renamed Prospera, not as a trouser role, although she wears pants until her identity is revealed, but as every inch a mother. Is this re-visioning of The Tempest a usurpation of the text or a parallel construction inspired by Shakespeare? And does the aesthetic value of the film depend on its being seen as one or the other?

Yes and no. This film is frustratingly both, generating dazzling pleasure and distressing impatience.

With its exploration of ruler rights and right rulers, a brother’s disloyalty, first love romance, magic, mutants, comic turns, and near murders, all occurring in isolation from the things of this world (“tis far off and rather like a dream”), The Tempest stands as Shakespeare’s most dangerously tempting text to a director with talent, time, imagination, funds, and impressive computer chops. One feels the urge, if not the obligation, to throw in the kitchen sink, and then give it wings via CGI.

In 1609 the English ship the Sea Venture wrecked off the coast of Bermuda. There probably lay Shakespeare’s inspiration for The Tempest. Three hundred and more years later, his literary, classification-challenging, five-act fantasy-comedy would be inspiration for movie directors as varied as Paul Mazursky, employing the graceful naturalism of actors John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands, and Raul Julia, and Peter Greenaway, with his magnificently imagistic adaptation, Prospero’s Books, and Fred M. Wilcox’s Freudian, sci-fi adaptation Forbidden Planet, featuring the late Leslie Nielsen. Taymor’s inconsistent version will not be the last.

The opening image on Taymor’s screen is striking evidence of how well acquainted she is with the poetry of the play. A cupped, pale hand holds a dark gray, sand castle. Slowly rain begins, then beats down, and by its pelting the castle dissolves. If you don’t experience a spinal shiver when, many scenes later, Prospera says

The gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temple, the great globe itself
Yea, all which it inherit shall dissolve
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

you have not been watching. Or listening.

Immediately following the picture of sand slipping through fingers, though, the camera shifts to a ship interior; words are shouted incomprehensibly above a terrible storm, followed by confused close ups of panicked faces, wind and water crashing against marine paraphernalia. It is a jolting cut, foreshadowing the jagged narrative approach to follow and representative of the the film’s considerable problems. Scene after scene is meaningfully, even magnificently, performed by Mirren or manipulated via imaginative use of CGI while the relationships and connections among the scenes are awkward at best. Also, this CGI pageant is definitely not insubstantial. It is too often the essential conceptual element. One wearies of the wows.

A somber scene in Julie Taymor's THE TEMPEST

The character image continually enhanced by CGI is Ariel, Prospera’s airy bondsman. In a bow/curtsy to Taymor’s transsexed Prospera, Ariel (Ben Whishaw) is an hermaphrodite sprite, nude, pale white when a male and sexually enticing, breathing into Prospera’s left ear, gray black with bulging breast buds when carrying out Prospera’s more revengeful wishes. The Ariel figure is often transparent (literally insubstantial) and multiplies in motion, leaving trails of vapor as he wisps to invisibility. That’s an intriguing vision of dematerialization, but ultimately not what matters. What matters is Whishaw’s haunting performance. When he asks Prospera, “do you love me,” his question is more dare than devotion. He is a devilish angel, far more haunting in the intimacy of human stillness than in Taymor’s insistence on his virtual skyward spins.

The star and fulcrum of The Tempest, however, is Mirren as Prospera. She commands when she wields her spells and comforts when she embraces her daughter, Miranda. The actress is honest in appearance, her wrinkles unconcealed, her teeth white but crooked. She is as aware of her own failings as much as she is aggrieved by the wrongs done to her; this Prospera’s power is only a smidgen stronger than her vulnerability. Her massive, wooden wand feels extraneous, her books irrelevant—in fact, we do not see them until they sink in slow motion into a calm sea as the story closes. It is Prospera, not her accouterments, which, like Ariel, matter.

Therein lies the rub of this Tempest. Performances like Mirren’s, Whishaw’s, and to some extent Felicity Jones as daughter Miranda, encourage us to see through and beyond the digital trickery, which soon becomes easy to dismiss or mock. (Taymor’s special effects sometimes have an unfortunate Harry Potter look about them, as if they are being recycled.) Overdone becomes redundant when it takes one’s attention from the text, interrupts the tempo of the verse, and seems to play more for the sake of Sony than for Shakespeare. I would guess it is also unnecessarily expensive.

Ironically, Taymor proves in her non-computerized camera work that she does not need the crutch of digitalization nearly so much as she thinks she does. But through overuse, CGI  makes reality look fake: even the actual Hawaiian big isle that serves as the setting for the film looks like a technicolor backdrop after a while.

Taymor’s interpretive take on The Tempest, save one instance below, is valid and valuable. Prospera as a mother makes sense and works and not only because Mirren is an incomparable thespian. If Prospera’s relationship to a daughter is different from what a father’s would be, so be it. The text permits and is illuminated by the slight but significant tonal shifts of different gender sensibilities, and those sweet, sad gestures that might draw unfortunate inferences between a man and a young woman. Which brings me to a gross fly in Taymor’s interpretive ointment.

Caliban as black brute—what was the director thinking?

Caliban. What was she thinking? As obediently portrayed by Djimon Hounsou, Caliban, the slave who by inheritance should be commander of this island, coarsely and hoarsely leers after Miranda, bent apelike in all his comings and goings, Caribbean-accented just to be sure we know he is really black, near naked throughout. He is all body and brutality and boring. I suppose there are no protesters  at theaters yet because the film has not reached a wide public. What’s more, the racism of the casting and playing is not the main artistic problem. It is the cliché. All this post-modern, technical whiz kid stuff, pervasive and obvious as it is, is decidedly odd as a context for such an offensive, antebellum personification.

The romance of Miranda and Ferdinand is stated, but she is much the stronger and more varied presence than he. More manly, goodly creatures and beauteous mankind may indeed abide. For the most part, the play’s comedic elements are more forced than funny, with the notable exception of Alfred Molina’s delicate rogue, Sebastian. The arriving royals are suitably distracted, their conspiracy clear, their repentance, less so.

Caliban assures us, ”Do not be afraid. The isle is full of noises.” And so it is. That noise, a score primarily of electronically enhanced wind instruments, percussion, and tympani devised by Elliot Goldenthal, underscores  every aspect of the film. It is as much a presence as the CGI, yet more singular and less redundant. When scenes’ sudden stops and starts jar, it is often the music that does not miss a beat, providing invaluable continuity and momentum.

Taymor’s The Tempest is proof that just because we can do something does not mean that we should. Less is often more, and one great text in hand is worth a dozen overheated computers in the mix.

Joann Green Breuer is artistic associate of the Vineyard Playhouse.


  1. Shelley on December 21, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    Sorry to go off-topic this once, but it might be a good time for us to do some Paul Revere-ing on the Internet–today the U.S. FCC is passing down the first of the Net Neutrality rulings. Al Franken on HuffPo (scroll down middle column there) says we should be outraged, and he doesn’t usually exaggerate. The Internet should not be headed toward corporate blogs buying the fast lane and the rest of us stuck in slow.

    Not sure where to make our voice heard, by emailing the White House or maybe the FCC page with How To Make ECFS Express Comments? It might be good if non-corporate websites had a community way for us to alert each other when something important like this comes up. Please consider passing it on.

  2. Ian Thal on January 19, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    It’s interesting that where you see racism in the casting of Djimoun Hounsou as Caliban, others instead see it as the (already quite cliché) anti-colonial (and anti-racist) interpretation of the role. Indeed, viewing Caliban as representing they colonized people of the world was a rather popular way of teaching the play in humanities survey courses when I was in undergrad and has been so since Frantz Fanon first suggested the interpretation. So, if anything, the casting of a black actor in the role came as a lazy lack of imagination when there are so many other options. That said, where you saw brutality, I saw a grace to Mr. Housou’s performance.

    As to the reliance on CGI: while I enjoyed the way it underlined the other-worldly nature of Ariel: clearly defining him as a character who does not fully exist in a world as even Prospera experiences it, it almost necessitated the highly truncated (under two-hours) vision we saw on the screen: how was Taymor going to possibly top that in the wedding masque? She avoiding answering that question by cutting that scene.

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