Shakespeare’s The Tempest exists in that rarified air of delighting audiences, directors, actors and scholars alike. There is seemingly something for everyone, but it’s that opening tempest at sea, dancing spirits, sorcery, songs and masque, begging for a spectacular festival of special effects, that attracts that visual maven of stage and screen Julie Taymor to try her hand at adapting and directing a film version.
Being beloved by all is a special distinction that few Shakespeare plays can lay claim to; however, along with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s also a play that is often misinterpreted and badly acted. There is frequently some nouveau political trope that is crudely pasted on it that obscures the already present brilliance of this late play: colonialism, racial subjugation and feminism are but a few of the more popular ones. Taymor’s slight nods to this trend are cross-casting the role of the deposed duke/wizard Prospero to a duchess/witch Prospera (Helen Mirren), and presenting the half-human monster Caliban (Djimon Hounsou) as a noble, if savage, slave of African heritage.
Casting the resplendent Mirren as anything is always a great choice, and it works quite well here. Prospero(a) is obviously the central role of the play/film and Mirren does not disappoint. She is the legitimate Duchess of Milan, who was left by her usurping brother Antonio (Chris Cooper) to the cruel sea in a rickety boat with her young daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones) only to shipwreck on a mostly deserted island. One would think that this switch from father to mother might damage the critical brother-against-brother and father-stuck-with-a-daughter dynamics, but it is a credit to Taymor and Mirren that nothing is lost in this regard, and many novel insights are gained.
Banishment for practicing witchcraft by suspicious men of power adds spice to Prospera’s revenge and isolation: you know Hell and a woman scorned right? Mirren, as Prospera, ably inhabits the roles of mother and father to Miranda with tender and instructive aplomb. Although, it is as the powerful magician that Mirren soars above this uneven and cheesy, if earnest, mess. She is sparkling, locked in with steely, resolute eyes, oozing gravitas, and infused with confident command. Having portrayed both Queen Elizabeths on the screen has not hurt her in this regard.
The spirit Ariel (Ben Whishaw) becomes Prospera’s "industrious servant" after she frees him from Caliban’s late mother, the "foul witch Sycorax." Women often now play Ariel, so Taymor is going against modern tradition with her choice of Whishaw. His Ariel is androgynously ethereal, but suffers from outlandish CGI overload to enhance his appearance and transformations. His scenes should be fantastical and embody the magical power that Prospera possesses to command such a creature, yet any time he is on screen it is laughably silly and hearkens to bad music videos of the early ’80s, or a crude parody of the same.
In opposition to that over-processed foolery, Jones as Miranda is refreshing for her very naturalness and sweet naïveté. She has been sheltered on an island with only her wizened mother and the monster Caliban so much so that upon seeing others for the first time Jones nails the famous "O brave new world, That has such people in't!" line.
Hounsou’s Caliban mostly disappoints as he shouts the majority of his lines incomprehensibly, and/or grunts incoherently. It is only at the end of the film that he achieves a quiet and austere dignity when his plot to kill Prospera fails.
Alfred Molina as the drunken butler Stephano is workmanlike in his approach to the role, and riffs well with his partner in wine Trinculo (Russell Brand). Brand is, of course, the rock star British comedian, and recently Mr. Katy Perry. Brand’s whole look and humor is polarizing to the extreme. One either loves or hates his Brandness. His performance belies only a passing acquaintance with classical Shakespearean acting, yet his every utterance is hilarious, because his particular gift is infusing even the mundane with his put-upon, singsong delivery.
Normally quite able actors in their own regard, Chris Cooper as the evil brother Antonio, David Strathairn as King Alonso, and Alan Cumming as Sebastian, all get lost in a forgettable shuffle. Tom Conti as the honest old counselor Gonzalo is an exception, with his generous and sincere performance.
Sandy Powell’s costumes are attractive and satisfying in their attention to detail combining period outfits with a steam punk aesthetics in leather, corsets and zippers.
Regrettably the music falls into that same category of cheese the visuals occupy. Ridiculous guitar solos and synthesizers dominate to create a similar mood to Flash Gordon bombast particularly when Aerial is whizzing around the island.
Taymor is supremely talented and has a knack for outlandish visuals. The first woman to win the Tony Award for directing a musical (The Lion King) and presently directing the troubled Broadway Spider-man musical, Taymor has also worked in film in recent years, directing Frida and Across the Universe. Her first crack at filmed Shakespeare was the visceral and arresting Titus.
It’s too bad that the buzz about this film and its inspired cast, coupled with Taymor’s track record and eye for stunning visuals, could not match up with what ended up on screen. What ultimately creates the silver lining in this tempest’s dark cloud is the brilliance of Helen Mirren, shining through like a bright star.
The Tempest is currently playing at the Angelika Film Center Dallas. It runs 110 minutes.