Visionary director Julie Taymor (Titus, Across the Universe) brings Shakespeare’s The Tempest to the big screen, with the lead role of Prospero played not by a man, as per tradition, but by Helen Mirren. Mirren’s Prospera is raising her daughter (Felicity Jones) on a barren, mystical island where she can practice the magic that got her banished from society. The film opens with Prospera orchestrating a shipwreck that brings her enemies ashore, where she divides the group and manipulates them with the help of the spirit Ariel (Ben Whishaw). Prospera’s goal is to take back her title of Duke and return to Milan.
The second half of this play is painfully anti-climactic and unsatisfying, one more fitting of an all-out comedy than a fanciful drama, which is what I’d classify The Tempest. But Taymor has a style that makes anything she touches worth examination. The film isn’t as anachronistically conceived as her previous Titus (a woefully underseen masterpiece of cinema). It’s a bit more restrained, with austere sets and landscapes taking a backseat to performances, albeit with the occasional flourish of psychedelic imagery for which the director is now famous. I love the exterior locations, but the interior sets feel oddly claustrophobic and stagy within the widescreen proscenium. And those flourishes — particularly Ariel’s flighty movements — are sometimes jarring. Elliot Goldenthal’s score is more subdued and less vital than I’d hoped, as well. But, hey. They can’t all be Titus.
The casting of this film is its most remarkable attribute. Helen Mirren makes the age-old lines come alive, and nearly the entire supporting cast joins her in being able to convey meaning to the viewer despite the highfalutin language barrier. Whishaw gives my second favorite performance in the film as Ariel — as much in love with as he is afraid of Prospera. Djimon Hounsou (as Calaban), David Strathairn (as King Alonso), Alfred Molina (Stephano), and Alan Cumming (Sebastian) are all equally up to the task. And I was pleasantly surprised by two bits of casting I had to see to believe — Chris Cooper as Antonio and Russel Brand as Trinculo. Reeve Carney and Felicity Jones, as the film’s two young lovers, are less convincing in their roles — but at least they’re pretty to look at.
Sandy Powell’s costumes are another highlight of the production. And I can’t believe I’m even saying this, but whenever characters sing? Those parts are actually good, too.
Oscar Nomination: Costume Design (Sandy Powell)