Why The Tempest and Thor should have swapped directors
Julie Taymor shows a gift for spectacle, and Kenneth Branagh has a gift for Shakespearean verse.
It’s a strange coincidence that Julie Taymor’s The Tempest and Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, released several months apart, should hit VOD simultaneously this week—and not just because both filmmakers inaugurated their screen careers with acclaimed mega-productions of Shakespeare. Lately, the two directors have also taken hits to their respective stocks: Right on the heels of The Tempest’s box-office failure last winter, Taymor was publicly edged out of her Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark Broadway disasterpiece. Branagh, meanwhile, has been largely MIA as an auteur, and in any event far from the glory days of Henry V (1989). Prior to Thor, his last movie to receive a U.S. release was 2007’s widely ridiculed, Harold Pinter–scripted update of Sleuth, which followed film versions of As You Like It and The Magic Flute that never even reached U.S. screens.
Clearly, what each director needs is a return to basics. With The Tempest, Taymor achieves that to some degree. What’s most fun about her Titus (1999), apart from Jessica Lange’s vamping as Tamora and Harry Lennix’s powerful turn as Aaron the Moor, is the way her visual excesses suit Shakespeare’s most violent (and, to some minds, most overwrought) play. But handed a more delicate creature in The Tempest, Taymor wisely dials down her indulgences: In the movie’s best scenes, the main ingredients are simply rocks, waves and the pleasures of fine actors (Helen Mirren as a gender-swapped “Prospera”; newcomer Felicity Jones as Miranda) grappling with iambic pentameter. When it turns to sound and fury, however, Taymor’s Tempest resembles an unearthed fantasy picture from 1984, with blaring synthesizer and badly integrated storm effects, although, strangely, no Muppets. (Ben Whishaw’s spectral Ariel almost qualifies.)
Branagh, meanwhile, seems totally out of his element in the magical space kingdom of Asgard, which is so heavily manufactured out of CGI it makes one long for the handmade flabbiness of an actual fantasy picture from 1984—even Dune. The central tension, in the rivalry between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), flatlines as soon as the movie lands on Earth and turns into a fish-out-of-water comedy; the romance (with Natalie Portman) is so underdramatized that Thor’s final act of courage barely registers.
What if the projects had been reversed? While Marvel Comics properties haven’t exactly served Taymor well lately, it’s possible that the parallels to Greek mythology she introduced in Spider-Man (including a character named Arachne) might have made for a more organic fit with Marvel’s Avengers spin-off, which already attempts to situate comic book heroes in a mythological context. And her gift for spectacular stagecraft might have given us a more inventively and meticulously designed Asgard.
Branagh, on the other hand, certainly shares Taymor’s weakness for ill-advised cameos. (Russell Brand’s Trinculo is a distraction on par with Jack Lemmon’s Marcellus in Branagh’s Hamlet.) Still, the director would probably have had enough respect for Shakespeare’s closing soliloquy (“Now all my charms are all o’erthrown/And what strength I have’s mine own”) that he wouldn’t have cut it entirely—reappropriating its words as the lyrics to a closing-credits Beth Gibbons song.
Then again, he did make a musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost. With these two at the helm, we’re all lost at sea.