Sound and Fury
by Benjamin Mercer
Dir. Julie Taymor, U.S., Touchstone Pictures
Julie Taymor is a filmmaker fascinatingly, infuriatingly at odds with herself. Each of her four features contains an essential, somewhat patronizing, gesture toward accessibility: her debut, Titus, sexes up Shakespeare’s gruesome Titus Andronicus with an all-star cast and a bright color palette; Frida puts Salma Hayek through an Oscar-friendly ornate-biopic game of dress-up, casting the voluptuous actress as the earth-mother-ish Mexican painter Frida Kahlo; Across the Universe tells a story of young love laced with Beatles tracks, proudly presenting the biggest pop-music sensation in the history of the world for those recalcitrant adolescents unwilling to take their parents’ word for it; and The Tempest, her latest effort, returns to the turf of her debut, busting a flashy late-Nineties-esque Shakespeare-revisionism move (it’s Prosper-a not Prosper-o!) amid a maelstrom of bizarre VFX. Even her forthcoming, astronomically expensive Broadway adaptation of Spider-Man, subtitled Turn Off the Dark, seems determined to make the comic-book material even more mainstream; the three Sam Raimi Spider-Man films collectively took in about $2.5 billion worldwide, but for all those stern, earnest adult-contemporary listeners in flyover country still dismissing superheroes as geeky kids’ stuff, Taymor has made the diplomatic gesture of adding a score of new soaring anthems by Bono and The Edge.
So there is always in Taymor’s projects a basic desire to bring some preexisting work to a new, larger viewership—even, as with Spider-Man, when it seems that the material has already reached a cultural saturation point. But then there are the actual surfaces of her films, which all contain supposedly dazzling sights and a whole lot of meaningless noise. Her frenetic visuals almost always work at cross-purposes with her script-phase appeal to the widest possible audience, ultimately rendering the source material less comprehensible; her ostentatious adaptations more often than not wind up disfiguring some of the sturdiest, most universally admired works in the Western world (the plays of Shakespeare, the Beatles canon).
Apart from the lead-role gender reversal, Taymor’s Tempest appears largely faithful to Shakespeare’s fantastical autumnal comedy. The film opens with rapid cuts of a ship in a very bad storm. Fire breaks out everywhere all of a sudden; the noise of the rain and the shouting of the vessel’s crew swells to a deafening volume. The sorceress Prospera (Helen Mirren, here donning a technicolor dreamcoat) orchestrates this mayhem so she can strand those aboard—namely, the king of Naples, Alonso (David Strathairn), and her brother, Antonio (Chris Cooper, weird accent), who banished her 12 years prior—on her remote island and attempt to right the wrongs done to her by them. This involves getting her daughter, Miranda (Felicity Jones), to fall in love with Alsonso’s son, Ferdinand (Reeve Carney).
From that opening scene onward, though, the Shakespeare masterpiece becomes something like The Perfect Tempest, announcing with an out-of-the-gate roar its intention to privilege attention-grabbing distraction over the text itself. This tendency is especially glaring in the scenes featuring Caliban (Djimon Hounsou), the fishlike man who does Prospera’s bidding until he decides to plot against her, and Ariel (Ben Whishaw), Prospera’s also reluctant but more steadfast sprite servant. Hounsou barks his lines and dances around, his body makeup offputtingly resembling vitiligo; the scenes when this character plays off Trinculo (Russell Brand, who appears to have been allowed in front of the camera wearing last night’s outfit, a green suit accented by a long red scarf) are entirely without rhythm, diverting attention away from the narrative and toward the audacity of the stunt casting. Taymor really goes to town, however, in visualizing Ariel as an angelic-white figure who sings and swoops around the island, which for its part looks like Master and Commander’s version of the Galapagos with a jungle interior cribbed from Avatar. One of the many guises taken by Ariel in his carrying out of Prospera’s instructions to intimidate those washed ashore is that of a menacing black bird with crippled wings, a jarring evocation of the recent oil-slick devastation in the Gulf used only to create a fleeting doom-and-gloom mood. On the heels of a fart joke involving Katy Perry’s husband, Ariel releases a pack of fiery bad-CGI hellhounds, and mayhem ensues—again.
Taymor takes the tempest as the play’s operating principle rather than just its inciting incident, often drowning key scenes in a deluge of extraneous sound and fury. These more-is-more tableaux were already present in her big breakout, her 1997 Broadway staging of The Lion King, and suggested her desire to create a theatrical experience that, with its costumes, effects, and general depth of movement, was more spectacularly cinematic than the animated film itself. In her latest film, as well, she again tries to reach past the medium she’s using—and in the process creates something garishly uncinematic, the bombast and visual convolution of which is fundamentally out of sync with the Shakespeare-for-dummies simplification pledge that seems to have been the project’s origin.