Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Tempest, and why it should have been marketed like Twilight

The thing on the right actually exists and has just reminded me that I need to get my Atari gear working again because Tempest 2000 was flat-out awesome.

Not a lot to say about this than I quite like it and wish I had been able to get to writing this earlier, maybe raising visibility a smidge before it opened in Boston on Friday, as I see it's already having its showtimes at Kendall Square hacked down to one show at 3:40pm tomorrow, probably down to nothing on Christmas. Which is a terrible shame, as it's always nice to see Shakespeare presented as fun and exciting, as opposed to something which you study in high school, groan about, and then ignore for the rest of your adult life.

Putting it that way, though, I kind of wonder if Miramax/Touchstone might have gotten a bigger audience if they'd marketed it toward that high school audience. Not just because, sadly, people forget Shakespeare after they graduate, but because (as I mention in the review below), the beating heart of The Tempest is a teen romance, played out breathlessly against a background of sorcerers and monsters. And the boy that Miranda falls head over heels for is actually kind of pretty, rather than being a dashing, rugged prince.

Sadly, my Photoshop-fu is weak, but if Lionsgate can come up with posters for Near Dark that make it look like Twilight, I wonder why it never occurred to Disney to do so for The Tempest. Sure, once the teens and tweens bought tickets, they'd be hit with Shakespearean dialogue and a whole heck of a lot more Helen Mirren than they were anticipating, but the former is not necessarily a bad thing - the florid prose may click with that audience better than most, and Helen Mirren is really fantastic as a character who is equal part villain and sacrificing mother. Besides, at that point, you've got their money, and they may just come out of it loving it, talking up Felicity Jones, Reeve Carney, and maybe Russell Brand's excellent comic relief.

Instead, the poster plays up the trippiness - which is very cool, don't get me wrong - and makes it look like an art film. It's not dishonest at all (well, except for the flames - I don't recall anything burning), but that's going to sell the movie to a limited audience: Those of us who already like Shakespeare, don't mind that Taymor has changed the sex of one of the main characters, and want to see what her crazy visual style brings to the movie. And while I'm happily a member of that group, it's pretty narrow.

Every time a Shakespeare film comes out, I feel the need to remind people that, remember, this was not highbrow entertainment in its day - it was for everyone. A whole thread of this movie is even broad slapstick. And I suspect that if Shakespeare were working now, he'd be doing a lot of very mainstream, fantastical, stuff - it's worth remembering that The Tempest, like the other Shakespeare plays that don't have direct antecedents, is full of magic and fantasy and required visual effects on stage and now on screen. Now is probably the best possible time to do a film of this particular play, because there's an audience for this kind of story. The funny thing is, as much as Taymor's made an arty, honestly kind of nutty, film, it's one that maybe could have been marketed to a wide audience if Disney had just recognized what that audience was.

The Tempest

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 December 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (sneak preview)

As The Tempest opens in cinemas after a certain amount of delay (the Walt Disney Company spent much of the past year or so trying to figure out what to do with Miramax Pictures, holding it in limbo), director Julie Taymor is regularly in the news for another long-delayed project, the Broadway production Spider-Man: Turn Back the Dark. Both are fantasies of one sort or another, both can be considered somewhat unusual takes on the source material. And without having seen the stage musical, I can only speak for The Tempest, but it at least displays Taymor's penchant for ambitious, visually dazzling productions in full, mad force.

Off the shores of a strange island, a ship is pummelled by the sea. It carries the royal families of Venice and Naples, but their high rank will do them no good when they wash up on shore in three groups: Neapolitan Prince Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) washes ashore alone; his father, King Alonso (David Strathairn) arrives in the company of his adviser Gonzalo (Tom Conti), brother Sebastian (Alan Cumming), and the Duke of Venice, Antonio (Chris Cooper); elsewhere, Alonso's clown Trinculo (Russel Brand) and butler Stephano (Alfred Molina) encounter Caliban (Djimon Hounsou), a strange half-human hybrid who is tamed by wine. He is not the island's only inhabitant; there is Prospera (Helen Mirren), the sorceress and deposed Duchess of Venice, her fifteen-year-old daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones), and their magical, spritely familiar, Ariel (Ben Whishaw).

Those familiar with the play will immediately note the different spin that Taymor put on Shakespeare's original story, that of changing Duke Prospero, the sorcerer, into Duchess Prospera, the sorceress. It's done remarkably smoothly, in that the changed lines in an early scene where Prospera explains her origins do not sound markably different from the unaltered monologue which surrounds it. Later scenes where Prospera refers to her brother-in-law Antonio as simply "brother" do sound a bit odd to modern ears, although no more so than Shakespeare's language often does. Implementation aside, it does change the way we look at the character a bit - Taymor works in comments that accusations of witchcraft were more dangerous for women than men, for instance. The most important change, though, is in how it perhaps refocuses the relationship between Prospera and her daughter. After all, Prospera knows what it is to be a teenage girl in a way a Prospero does not.

Full review at EFC.

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