Jason says: "As THE TEMPEST opens in cinemas after a certain amount of delay (the Walt Disney Company spent much of the past year or so trying to figure out what to do with Miramax Pictures, holding it in limbo), director Julie Taymor is regularly in the news for another long-delayed project, the Broadway production Spider-Man: Turn Back the Dark. Both are fantasies of one sort or another, both can be considered somewhat unusual takes on the source material. And without having seen the stage musical, I can only speak for The Tempest, but it at least displays Taymor's penchant for ambitious, visually dazzling productions in full, mad force.
"Off the shores of a strange island, a ship is pummelled by the sea. It carries the royal families of Venice and Naples, but their high rank will do them no good when they wash up on shore in three groups: Neapolitan Prince Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) washes ashore alone; his father, King Alonso (David Strathairn) arrives in the company of his adviser Gonzalo (Tom Conti), brother Sebastian (Alan Cumming), and the Duke of Venice, Antonio (Chris Cooper); elsewhere, Alonso's clown Trinculo (Russel Brand) and butler Stephano (Alfred Molina) encounter Caliban (Djimon Hounsou), a strange half-human hybrid who is tamed by wine. He is not the island's only inhabitant; there is Prospera (Helen Mirren), the sorceress and deposed Duchess of Venice, her fifteen-year-old daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones), and their magical, spritely familiar, Ariel (Ben Whishaw).
"Those familiar with the play will immediately note the different spin that Taymor put on Shakespeare's original story, that of changing Duke Prospero, the sorcerer, into Duchess Prospera, the sorceress. It's done remarkably smoothly, in that the changed lines in an early scene where Prospera explains her origins do not sound markably different from the unaltered monologue which surrounds it. Later scenes where Prospera refers to her brother-in-law Antonio as simply 'brother' do sound a bit odd to modern ears, although no more so than Shakespeare's language often does. Implementation aside, it does change the way we look at the character a bit - Taymor works in comments that accusations of witchcraft were more dangerous for women than men, for instance. The most important change, though, is in how it perhaps refocuses the relationship between Prospera and her daughter. After all, Prospera knows what it is to be a teenage girl in a way a Prospero does not.
"Of course, the best argument for this change is that it lets the audience see Helen Mirren in this role. There is a ruthlessness to the character - Ariel and Caliban are both slaves, after all, and Mirren leaves no doubt that Prospera will get everything she needs before releasing them from bondage, though she's remarkably adept at only occasionally poking her toes over the line between strength and harshness. The best part of her performance, though, is her affection for Miranda. There have Prosperos who were focused on regaining their kingdoms (or just getting revenge) and ones more interested in their magical studies than anything else, and Prospera leans toward the latter, but as the film goes on, it becomes very clear that she's orchestrating events because as much as she might like to stay away from the rest of the world forever, Miranda needs to join it. It's not something in the text, but it's clear from the way she says her lines about everything else. She remains angry, and it's not in her nature to forgive, but she's a mother who will absolutely sacrifice everything for her daughter.
"Mirren isn't the only performer who sparkles. One of the funny things about THE TEMPEST which takes the audience by surprise is what a giddy teen romance it can be; there's something pure and sweet about Miranda seeing her first boy and being blown away by what marvelous creatures there are in the world ('O brave new world that has such people in it,' indeed!), and Reeve Carney is just as likable as the prince who has clearly never met a girl like Miranda before. Djimon Hounsou gives Caliban a nice, inhuman physicality when he moves, and he gets to have some of the most fun in that he's playing off Russell Brand and Alfred Molina most of the time. Brand and Molina are flat-out funny, especially Brand; the rapid-fire patter of Shakespeare's comic verse rolls off his tongue easily with just the right amount of slapstick. The group of royals is good as well, with Chris Cooper especially impressive as the scheming Antonio.
"And, because it's a Julie Taymor film, it looks fantastic. Taymor does tend toward excess as always, and some of her depictions of Ariel's otherworldly nature are too much visual overload (and sometimes a bit inconsistent - it makes sense to have Ariel be nude, but the early tendency to do near-misses of genitals seems kind of silly when he's later shown to be sexless). There are a lot of very cool decisions made in terms of design: The film is shot not just in Hawaii, but a shore where the volcanic nature is obvious; it doesn't look Mediterranean at all. The make-up used to transform Hounsou into Caliban is especially nifty - the marbled look doesn't just make Caliban look neither black nor white, but it's actually done in such a way that in some spots it looks like white makeup over black skin and in others black makeup over white skin. The one interior set impressively abstract, and the costumes are slick (though I suspect the zippers are anachronisms). Eliot Goldenthal's score is nicely aggressive.
"Taymor's vision is, as always, unique, and Shakespeare can be a challenge, so this movie has 'not for everyone' stamped all over it. Still, in many ways, this strange, supernatural story might actually be more accessible for a wide audience today than some of the Bard's less fantastical material. And while the film is occasionally weird, it's never stodgy; it is, in fact, one of the most energetic Shakespeare adaptations in recent memory, and a great deal of fun to watch. 4 1/2 cats
"Seen 14 December 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (sneak preview)"