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Ten Word or Less Review: Thou smelleth a foul stink in the air.

During the end of the previous millennium Shakespeare had one Hell of an agent working in his corner.  Between 1989 and 2000 many of the Bard’s works saw big screen adaptations.  Othello, Romeo & Juliet,, Henry V, Richard the III (twice), A Midsummer Nights Dream, Love Labors Lost, Hamlet (again twice), Much Ado About Nothing, Taming of the Shrew (as Ten Things I Hate About You), won Best Picture for falling in love and even Shakespeare’s much derided Titus Andronicus made the leap to the screen.  This last one, directed by Julie Taymor and with a title shortened to simply Titus, is of special note.  It was a wildly extravagant exercise in cinematic overindulgence thrust onto the screen by the renowned stage director.  It was a debauchery, it was awesome, it was a loony tunes adaptation and it went seen by almost nobody.  Twas a shame.  Regardless, Taylor now returns to adapt another of Will’s finicky works, The Tempest.  Despite numerous attempts to adapt Tempest to cinema over the past century, there’s one from 1911, 50’s sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet remains the only feature of note anyone outside the art film circuit could probably recall.  Sadly, Taymor’s return to Shakespearean theater is a shoddy endurance test.  Some may point the finger at Taymor and her adaptive skills but I feel that some cause of this inert movie is the source material.

I have no doubt that there are miles upon miles of scholarly papers which hold The Tempest out as one of Shakespeare’s most fascianting works, but from where I’m sitting it feels like a work from a man no longer at the top of his form.  One of Shakespeare’s final plays, The Tempest is a revenge fable with no revenge.  Prospero, now Prospera and played by Helen Mirren, traps those who have conspired against her on her island of banishment at which point she commences to annoy them.  That’s about it.  Titus Andronicus cooked his enemies children into meat pies.  That is an act of revenge.  Also, working to make your hot daughter fall in love with the handsom son of the guy you hate doesn’t feel like retribution.  It doesn’t help that this romance feels completely rote.  These young lovers feel like tedious window dressing.  When it all concludes it feels like a story about a half dozen individuals scheming to all ends but actually doing nothing to one another.  Watching Taymor try to pry life out of this tale feels like so many rusty narrative wheels grinding away like machinery in need of lube.

Taymor has a trademark style that she brings to Tempest in full force: wild costumes, intense, kaleidoscopic visuals, surrealistic imagery, striking art direction.  She pours it all on as much as she can but none of the effort amounts to much.  Her Tempest simply drones on and on as characters maneuver around one another talking up a storm, literally and figuratively, as the visuals flare up around them like so much smoke and mirrors.  One can’t help but to be taken in at times with her delirious imagery, there is a scene with a character morphed into a crow that feels delightfully freakish, but it amounts to a superficial appreciation of pretty pictures.

This Tempest is a shame and shows that Taymor can work only so much magic with the Bard’s more confounding works.  Her directorial efforts since Titus have been similar to this, opulent looking but mundane, so maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise after all.  She turned one of Shakespeare’s most derided dramatic exercises into a gory phantasm of grizzly movie goodness and though it may have been a mess dramatically it was a thrill to watch.  She can’t find a way to infuse that kind of edginess, or even the most basic narrative interest, into The Tempest, but I’m left to wonder if anyone could.  As the author himself once wrote, the play’s the thing.


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