28 December 2010

We Are Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On: A Review of "The Tempest"

Scene: Exterior - Broadway, New York City, two weeks before Christmas.

Four friends and I have set off on a quest to see Julie Taymor's interpretation of William Shakespeare's The Tempest. I've been looking forward to this day for months -- I took a vacation day from work so that I could see this film on opening night -- so we're driving 30+ miles, into New York City, on a Friday night, this close to Christmas. The potential for disaster is dangerously high.

The risk, however, is more than worth the reward. See, I'm a bit of a Shakespeare fanatic. I read the plays, I see all the movies, and I see the plays performed on the stage whenever I can. I know -- and celebrate -- William Shakespeare's birthday, I know the names of the three conspirators in Henry V (Act 2, Prologue), and I remember the name of Mercutio's brother in Romeo and Juliet. I quote Shakespeare to my four-year-old niece. Oh, and I bought her a copy of The Complete Works before she was even born.

Two of my former college professors -- one with a Master's degree and one with a Ph. D. -- have invited me into their classrooms for a day or more to teach their students about The Bard. This is, of course, an honor. An honor I could not accept (it's a long story), but an honor nonetheless.

I respect both professors, but if Dr. Nancy Hazelton -- a true Shakespearean scholar -- told me that William Shakespeare was the son of an illiterate glover, who smoked cannabis, and wrote the majority of his sonnets for a man, I'd take every word as gospel. (Wait...what?!?) If I have a question about Will or the Elizabethan theater, I go to Dr. H. So, when she asked for my review of The Tempest, I again held it a high honor.

Truthfully, I'm still wrestling with my feelings toward the movie. I want to like it, I really, really want to like it. And, overall, I do. The film was beautiful. The setting (Hawaii) was perfect. The actors were -- with one exception -- terrific. Helen Mirren did a wonderful job with the "Our revels now are ended" speech. (I doubted her not.) The film was a big step up from Titus.

That being said, I had several problems (three small, two large) with the film:

1. Although I realize Trinculo is one of the "low comedy" characters, I think Russell Brand was a poor choice to play that part. His accent -- compared to those of the others -- was jarring. I don't know how to explain it other than to say that he just didn't seem to "fit" the part.
My view on this point has softened somewhat in the past three weeks. I thought back to Kenneth Branagh's casting of Alicia Silverstone and Matthew Lillard in Love's Labours Lost, and realized that Taymor was probably trying to pull in the younger, "Katy Perry" crowd by casting Brand. (Brand is, for those who don't know, engaged to singer Katy Perry.)

2. Being a Romantic, I think the moment Miranda and Ferdinand first meet could have been extended a bit. I would've liked one of those cinematic "Their eyes meet and everything around them stops for a few moments" type of shots.

3. In a few places, most notably the shipwreck scene (Act 1, Scene 1), the music made the dialogue nearly unintelligible. That scene should be loud (men shouting, howling wind, thunder, crashing waves, breaking timber), but the music threatened to drown (small pun intended) much of that.

4. The masque (Act 4, Scene 1) was very short, and it resembled a cut scene from Taymor's Across the Universe. It consisted of computer generated graphics that resembled a geometry exam on LSD. (James I, who loved masques -- hence their inclusion in many plays once he became king -- would not have approved.)

5. My major complaint about the film is the epilogue. The epilogue was presented as a song (a very slow song) which played over the closing credits. If I hadn't known that an epilogue was coming, I would have missed it. When the credits began before the epilogue was presented, I stayed in my seat thinking perhaps Taymor was going to do something like Branagh did in As You Like It. Sadly, that was not to be.
I was a bit shocked. I mean, that epilogue wasn't just the end of the play, it was Will's farewell to the stage. It should have been a bit tongue-in-cheek ("Yes, I'm out here begging you to clap for the play"), and contain a little bit of sentiment for those of us -- 400 years down the road -- who know that Will is done writing (at least by himself).

Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

- William Shakespeare, The Tempest

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