Julie Taymor’s cinematic adaptation of this supernatural tale employs gorgeous cinematography and a cream-of-the-crop cast, not to mention it’s an excellent an and vastly entertaining literary brush-up. And really, what more could you ask for? It’s also one of only two of the Great Bard’s works steeped in sorcery, so there’s the constant feeling just about anything can happen onscreen.
Taymor adds a fascinating twist to the plot, turning the sorcerer Prospero into a sorceress, Prospera, played by none other than Helen Mirren. When her enemies shipwreck on the island she and her daughter Miranda call home, Prospera wreaks magical havoc on the beleaguered men as revenge for her banishment from a royal perch in Italy. And thus follow elements of tragedy, comedy and romance in almost equal measure.
As seen in her ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (2007), FRIDA (2002) and adaptation of another Shakespeare play, TITUS (1999) – not to mention her smash theatrical adaption of THE LION KING on Broadway – Taymor views the screen (or stage) as her canvas and applies colors liberally as one would to a painting. THE TEMPEST is gorgeous and sumptuous, a feast for the eyes. Not only artistically, but through the startlingly dramatic natural scenery of black lava rock, towering cliffs, exploding surf, barren landscapes and open skies I never realized Hawaii could provide. The film also employs just the right amount of CGI to further its storyline instead of shrouding it. Such can be seen in the spirit Ariel’s dances across the stratosphere or Prospera’s magical deliberations in her lair: celestial shapes and light patterns whirling, potions bubbling, flasks combusting. Ariel’s dramatic transformation into a jet-black harpy to terrify and stupefy the lost royals is for me one of the visual high points. Along these lines, Taymor always prioritizes her costumes, and so for THE TEMPEST enlisted the considerable talents of Oscar darling designer Sandy Powell. The sorceress’s shimmering feathered cape, rainbow array of her wardrobe and strictly corseted black dress as she confronts her equally black-clad royal prey add so much to this banquet of imagery.
Mirren, Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, Djimon Hounsou, and Tom Conti alone - not even the kit and caboodle of the cast – boast an Oscar total of one win (Mirren) and seven nominations (three for Mirren, two for Hounsou and one each for Cooper, Strathairn and Conti). Mirren alternately rages, weeps, loves and forgives. Cooper and Cumming sneer as the villains Antonio and Sebastian, and Alfred Molina and Russell Brand – yes, that Russell Brand – thoroughly enjoy themselves as fools Stephano and Trinculo. Brand faces the added challenge of proving himself in the genre and passes with flying colors. Rising star Ben Whishaw (BRIGHT STAR, BRIDEHEAD REVISITED) embraces perhaps most fun role of the play as the passionate, vulnerable, and intensely loveable Ariel. New faces Felicity Jones and Reeve Carney tenderly play star-crossed lovers, and I especially look forward to more of Jones in the future.
The drunken, slapstick comedy of the fools’ scenes (Ticulo, Stephano and Caliban - who I’ll also get to) bored me a little. Perhaps it’s just that the humor hasn’t translated over the ages. But since Taymor so artfully supplements the play’s ancient language with exotic scenery, tasteful CGI and Elliot Goldenthal’s dramatic score, I can’t help but think she could have further developed the dimwits’ scenes as well. And while Djimon Hounsou performs admirably as the savage Caliban, it was a little uncomfortable watching the otherwise all white cast mock and abuse the lone African American as a misunderstood, dumb beast. Also, on a smaller, technical note, the ship scene in the storm felt staged more for theatre than the screen, and the CGI hell hounds looked like, well, CGI.
But as a whole I found this re-telling of THE TEMPEST such a genuine pleasure to watch, and it’s my sincere hope the multi-talented Julie Taymor receives both the praise and awards that by this point she amply deserves.
Director: Julie Taymor
Cast: Helen Mirren, Russell Brand, Alfred Molina, Djimon Hounsou, David Strathairn, Chris Cooper, Alan Cumming, Ben Whishaw, Reeve Carney, Felicity Jones, Tom Conti
Writer: Julie Taymor
Run Time: 110 minutes
Now playing in select theatres