I'm an English professor, but I'm not about to pass myself off as a Shakespeare expert. In fact, I managed to dodge the Bard until grad school, preferring to study Chaucer in a Middle English dialect that seemed more down-to-earth than Shakespeare's flowery prose.
"Hang thee not off my garment," one of the characters says in "The Tempest," a 2010 adaptation of a play that many consider to be Shakespeare's last. Translation: "Don't touch me."
"Wherefore weep you?" another character says, and "Heard you this?" So if you were wondering where George Lucas may have gotten the inspiration for Yoda-speak, look thee no further than Shakespeare.
There are countless film versions of Shakespeare's works, but I have to say that "The Tempest," adapted for the screen and directed by Julie Taymor ("Frida," "Across the Universe") is by far the most cinematic. Everything else I've seen has seemed somehow tied to the stage. Taymor decided to go a different direction, taking this romance-comedy into the realm of fantasy so that the visuals and treatment embody a darker mythic element and tone, such as we've seen in films like the "Lord of the Rings" Trilogy. Except the language is a little more "How camest thou into this pickle?" (Another line from the film--you can't make this stuff up!)
Okay, I prithee forgive me for my anti-Shakespeare bias. Now I'll don my open-minded critics cap.
If you have a blank slate when you come to this film, you'll be struck by Helen Mirren's performance as Prospera, a role that was made for her, since Shakespeare's play called for the magician Prospero to be a man. In Shakespeare's play, Prospero was the rightful Duke of Milan who was exiled with his daughter, Miranda, on an island after his brother deposed him and set him adrift. After that, it gets complicated. The witch Sycorax had been banished to the very same island, but died before Prospero's arrival. She left behind a demon-son, Caliban, who is forced into slavery by Prospero after he tries to rape Miranda. But the action really begins when Prospero uses his magic to shipwreck a vessel carrying the very brother that exiled him, accompanied by his son and other royalty . . . and lesser sailors. At Prospero's bidding is the spirit Ariel, whom he rescued but who was pressed into service because of that rescue.
As the play proceeds, we follow the nobles as they traverse the island, while the Duke's son gets isolated and meets (and falls in love with) Miranda. Meanwhile, two drunken crew members run across Caliban, who thinks they're gods of some sort.
Without giving anything away, this is one of those "all's well that ends well" plays, which means, by Shakespearian standards, it's a comedy. But "The Tempest" also falls into the romantic tradition, because the Duke's son and Miranda fall for each other, and that kind of complicates Propsero's revenge.
But let's talk about the film. Felicity Jones seems appropriately wide-eyed and obedient as Miranda, while Reeve Carney makes for a foppish, milquetoast sort of prince. Is there any other kind? Together, though, they make for the blandest lovers thou canst imagine. (Sorry, I said I'd quit that. Starting . . . NOW).
David Strathairn appears as King Alonso (the former Duke), and seems perfectly wasted in that role, with he and the other nobles (Alan Cumming, Tom Conti, Chris Cooper) a drag on the senses every time the focus shifts to their wanderings and verbal meanderings. the drunken fools are curiosities mostly because they're played by Russell Brand and Alfred Molina and because they dress and act anachronistically (as is often the case with comic relief characters in performances of Shakespeare) But they too quickly grow tiresome. As for Caliban (Djimon Hounsou), in this version he's less twisted/demonic and more tribal/aboriginal. Unfortunately, that "take" on the character can make his monologues seem even longer than they are.
Of the four plot threads, only Mirren as Prospera consistently holds our interest, as she interacts with Miranda and the swift spirit, Ariel, played by a naked Ben Whishaw (who athletically and artfully finds ways to cross his legs so his "junk" doesn't show and push this beyond its PG-13 rating). The CGI effects are also rooted in the cinematic world of fantasy, and they're quite good. Combine them with a brooding landscape, panoramic views, and extreme close-ups and you get a film that has a great deal of style. It's fascinating to see how completely Taymor leaves the stage behind, and how she's completely altered the mood and feel of "The Tempest" by going the fantasy route with winged monsters, naked spirits, aboriginal slaves, and a daring music soundtrack that incorporates rock ‘n' roll and jazz . . . but not always at the right time.
Helen Mirren said that "learning lines for ‘The Tempest' was the hardest thing," but "it's just a matter of knuckling down and doing it." Had she not done so, once you got past the novelty of the treatment, this film would have been a dreadful bore.
Using filters and manipulation of color, cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh does a nice job of creating an atmosphere compatible with Taymor's vision, and Miramax did a nice job with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50-gig Blu-ray disc. "The Tempest" looks gorgeous, with inky blacks strong enough to hold detail in most of the dreary scenes, though appearing a little chalky in others. Skin tones are natural, however, and while the color palette changes for each narrative, the video is clear and well lit throughout. As with most Blu-rays, you can really appreciate the level of detail in the close-ups, and that's certainly the case here. There's a slight layer of grain that looks natural and atmospheric, rather than distracting or annoying, as "The Tempest" looks uncommonly sharp most of the time, given the largely exterior shooting. It's presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that's pleasingly immersive, especially during the special effects, as when the tempest roars (and your subwoofer, too). But smaller details also come to life, brightly but organically through the effects speakers. There's a purity of sound and a crispness that you experience with the best Blu-rays, and an easy flow of sound across the space of your viewing area. While I'm not sure I'd hold up "The Tempest" as a model for other filmmakers to follow, it's a very strong audio presentation.
There's a nice package of bonus features here, starting with a standard making-of documentary that incorporates behind-the-scenes footage, cast and filmmaker interviews, and clips, with commentary. It runs just a few minutes the other side of an hour, and is better than the average making-of feature.
Taymor also offers a full-length commentary in which she tackles every subject imaginable. Shakespeare fans will want to listen to this, because she talks at length about adapting the Bard for modern sensibilities, and also argues for her choices in style and casting. Maybe because I'm an academic I much preferred her commentary to the other full-length track with Shakespeare scholars Jonathan Bate (University of Warwick) and Virginia Mason Vaughan (Clark University), which is considerably drier than Taymor's but far more praising of the film than I expected them to be. Then again, there have been a lot of film versions of Shakespeare's works, and a lot of bad films. To find one with Mirren's level of performance and Taymor's fresh and effective fantasy take must have enthralled them, but I wonder if, in retrospect, once the giddiness of discovery wore off if they still found it as laudable.
The rest of the bonus features are of ephemeral interest. A stage rehearsal session at L.A. features Taymor and the three men responsible for the comic relief together, testing a scene. Then there's a five-minute improv with Russell Brand on Day 1 of rehearsals, and a "Mistress Mine" (Reeve Carney) music video.
Aside from Mirren's as-always mesmerizing performance and Taymor's stylish take on Shakespeare's last play, "The Tempest" is more of a drizzle. Recommended for lovers of Helen Mirren and Shakespeare only.