In 1999, director Julie Taymor brought Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus to the big screen. An auspicious decision to be sure given that it’s one of Will’s most critically chided plays. Undeterred, she gave the gruesome movie a deep infusion of visual imagination and ultimately pulled off a memorable film.

One would think that Taymor taking another stab at Shakespeare – this time for a play more acclaimed – would be an easy bucket. Unfortunately THE TEMPEST feels more like a clank off the back iron than an effortless swish.

At the centre of THE TEMPEST is Prospera (Helen Mirren). Prospera has been exiled to a secluded island with her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones) for twelve years. Through much study and a bit of alchemy, Prospera has turned into quite the sorceress. She is served faithfully by a spirit named Ariel (Ben Whishaw) whom she rescued from imprisonment in a tree. The only other inhabitant of the island is Caliban (Djimon Honsou), a deformed monster that Miranda and Prospera once considered family, but who has now found himself persona non grata.

Twelve years after her exile, Prospera uses her powers to conjure a tempest, causing a passing ship to wreck on the island’s shores. The vessel is manned by conspirators who led to Prospera’s exile – Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian (David Strathairn, Chris Cooper and Alan Cumming). They are searching the island for Alonso’s son who went missing after the ship ran aground. His name is Ferdinand, and his wanderings lead him to Miranda, who falls for him in a hot second.

Then there are the ship’s hands, Stephano and Trinculo (Alfred Molina and Russell Brand). After running into Caliban, they get it in their head that they can take over the island and run it as their own kingdom. Together with the monster, they set off to do battle with the sorceress…without the foggiest clue what they’ve gotten themselves into.

The story of THE TEMPEST comes from Shakespeare, so there will be no assailing the plot of this particular misfire. I will however offer this note: Typically films adapted from the works of Shakespeare run long. I’m not saying that they all need to be four hours like Kenneth Brannagh’s HAMLET, but they usually carry a bit of extra runtime since they are adapting The Bard’s 2+ hour plays. Here though, Taymor has delivered everything in less than two hours…and I felt like such a trim offering deprived the audience of nuance. If the relationships and conflicts of THE TEMPEST are indeed a stormy sea, than we are just a pebble skipping over it.

What’s more disappointing though, is that Taymor hasn’t brought her usual scope of imagination to this interpretation. There are glimmers – such as Trinculo falling into a puddle that turns into frogs, and Ariel hexing Sebastian and Antonio with a murder of crows…but these moments are fleeting, and very deeply buried in the overall arc of the film. This is the same director who made Frida Kahlo’s paintings come to life, and visualized the Beatles’ catalogue in truly original ways. You’d suspect that taking another swing at Shakespeare would really let her stretch her legs, but sadly no. Perhaps that Spider-Man musical has really taken its toll on her.

If anything, the film feels rather restrained. It’s odd to see a cast that includes Alfred Molina, Russel Brand, and Alan Cumming, and yet doesn’t let any of them out to play. that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there’s no attempt to capitalize on their restraint either. Of all the wonderful dialogue and melancholy monologues delivered in this film, only one is captured with any sort of delicacy – that being Caliban’s Dream. It’s during this iconic moment that Taymor’s camera delicately pulls in, and draws our attention to Djimon Honsou’s expressive face and keeps us locked there while he breathes life into those wonderful words.

It’s an exquisite example of “less is more”…but sadly the only such moment in the film.

The only thing that the film really gets right is taking the role of Prospero and changing it to Prospera for Helen Mirren to play it. Making the part more maternal deepens the relationship with Miranda and gives it a wonderful intimacy that a father/daughter relationship doesn’t have in quite the same manner. However, the daring move feels a tad wasted, since Mirren is never really given a chance to shine…her scenes never getting the benefit of the subtlety of Caliban’s Dream.

If I didn’t know better, I’d wager that the version of THE TEMPEST that I watched was just an experiment. It was a chance to try a few interesting effects on a few interesting actors, but ultimately a result to only be kept as a reference. I say this because there are glimmers of what could be…a charming delivery here, a wonderful shot there. But they are too few, and too far between for this to succeed as a completed work. Sadly, for a director that I greatly admire for her unlimited imagination, this film disappoints for the worst reason – a complete lack of vision.

Matineescore: ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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