You just lie there when you should be standing tall… Skip The Tempest (with Helen Mirren) #review

With all the hustle and bustle of this modern life, I sometimes miss the films I really want to see.  For example, 2011’s The Tempest.

This was the trailer:

Hoo ha!  Look at that!  Look at all that!  Plus, Helen Mirren is playing the role of Prospero?!  Egads, this will be awesome.

Everything good about the 2011 film of The Tempest is right there in the trailer.  Quite literally.  Watch the trailer and now thank me for sparing you an hour and a half of your life which you would never get back.

It’s difficult to know precisely where things went wrong with this film.  The play’s subject matter perhaps makes it more suited to the screen than as a play — a trait it shares with Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that lost play with Godzilla in it.  Prospero was betrayed by his brother and deposed as Duke of Milan.  He flees with his daughter to an island which he rules with his magic.  Upon learning that his brother is sailing nearby, Prospero — with the help of a sprite he’s enslaved — sinks the ship and forces the ship’s occupants (his brother, the King of Naples, the King of Naples’ brother, the King of Naples’ son, plus two ship hands: Trinculo and Stephano) to come to the island.

Thus begins three subplots involving romance, revenge, and — er — racism.

The Tempest is not Shakespeare’s best play (that would be Richard III), but it still has enough depth and complexity for a good director to take control of it and convey some profound message.  The recent production of Hamlet with Patrick Stewart and David Tennant, for example, took an editorial axe to most of the play to create a tight, fast-moving story which worked both on stage and on film.  Richard III with Ian McKellan was retold in a fascist 1930s United Kingdom, and it’s fantastic.

But this version of The Tempest fails to engage with any of the big questions of the play and, in its rush to dazzle with cheesy special effects, fails to make a connexion with the audience.

The big question of the play, of course, is Caliban.  The play itself gives a confusing description of the character — he is deformed somehow, he looks like some sort of fish, he is the son of a deceased witch and a devil.  It’s this deformity, this strangeness, this monstrosity that drives a lot of the action throughout the play.

He is introduced, in the play, when Prospero confronts Caliban for trying to rape Miranda (Prospero’s daughter).  Prospero punishes Caliban and so Caliban decides to attack Prospero.  While venting, he falls asleep and is found by Trinculo who can’t work out if Caliban is some kind of edible fish.  Before Trinculo can eat Caliban, they are found by Stephano.  Caliban wakes up and thinks Stephano is some kind of god.  Caliban explains his desire to overthrow Prospero; Trinculo and Stephano agree to help.

But when you’ve got a film full of zippy, whirring, whizzing special effects, it’d just look plain silly for Caliban to look like some sort of fish-monster.  No, no.  It’s much easier to just make Caliban black and have him speak like Jar Jar Binks.  Caliban referring to Stephano as ‘Master’ — not to mention Trinculo referring to Caliban repeatedly as ‘moster’ — makes for some cringe-worthy viewing.

Worse, it’s done without any depth.  There are a lot of people, I imagine, who would have come to The Tempest with their post colonial monocles and would have thought: ‘Aha!  We’re on an island where the white Prospero has made a slave of the native Caliban.  Caliban is trying to overthrow his white master… by adopting a new white master Stephano… and kowtows to his racist friend who keeps calling him a monster…’

This lack of depth isn’t limited to Caliban.  Prospero is portrayed by Helen Mirren.  This immediately opens up all kinds of new dynamics between Prospero and Miranda, now mother and daughter.  But nothing comes of it.  Mirren’s main conversant is the sprite Ariel who is played by some kind of albino nudist.  Due to the film’s raging hard on for CGI effects, Ariel is usually added into the scene digitally.  Thus, the scenes feel like Mirren is standing in a green room reciting lines, unable to respond to the naked albino’s conversation.  Perhaps this was because Mirren was standing in a green room reciting lines…?

The rest of the cast range from mediocre to terrible.  The words are mouthed but it’s hard to tell what the actors think the words mean.  It wouldn’t shock me if many of them — particularly Alan Cumming — had their lines written on cue cards just off camera.  Russell Brand is good for exactly two minutes.  I was really worried he was going to be terrible.  He jumps on to the stage, nails every part of his introduction, and then wears out his welcome with random precision for the next hour.  You’re left wondering why Prospero didn’t spare the audience and drown everybody on the ship.

But the very worst feature of this film was the CGI.

If Shakespeare spent thirty lines describing a tree, it is hard to imagine that he intended to have the tree on stage where everybody could see it.  Shakespeare was a wordbender, crafting ideas for the audience to imagine rather than see.

But with modern technology, you can show the audience what the words mean instead.  Thus, Ariel’s excruciating speech about how he set fire to the ship… while the film shows us Ariel setting fire to the speech.  Out of interest, I replayed that scene but put it on mute.  Miracle of miracles, the scene plays much better.  The words aren’t doing any work now that the computer has taken over the role of crafting the image.

This problem occurs again and again throughout the film.  ‘Here I am!’ shouts Ariel, ‘And now I shall tell you what I’m doing while I do it!’  It’s like the guy has no capacity for internal monologue.  It’s like Ariel was being played by Brak.

In conclusion, this film is bad and everybody involved in the film should feel bad.

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