A dream cast, a marvelously rugged locale in the Hawaiian Islands, one of the most durable and enticing works in all of Shakespeare's canon (with a sly, feminist twist), and the inimitable touch of visionary director Julie Taymor: what could possibly go wrong with The Tempest? The answer is, not much, in Taymor's long-awaited screen version of Shakespeare's most wistful, magical, and elegiac final play. True, some parts bump along, and the film as a whole offers less of the sheer visual rapture-per-frame than her masterful debut feature, Titus. But this is still vintage Taymor, necessary viewing for anyone following her remarkable career, and an insightful adaptation that in many ways strips down Shakespeare's tale to its essential humanity.
In Taymor's gender-bent revision, the mighty Helen Mirren stars as "Prospera." A wise ruler devoted to study and science, she's suffered the fate of so many studious women who are in the way of somebody else's plans: she's been accused of witchcraft and exiled with her daughter to a remote island by the usurper brother who now rules her kingdom. The uninhabited island is alive with magical forces, which the seething Prospera (the ultimate Woman Scorned) has imperiously enslaved. The airy sprite, Ariel (Ben Whishaw) is bound to do her bidding after she released him from a magical prison. The native-born "monster," Caliban (the great Djimon Hounsou, caked in variegated mud and rags) is her beast of burden.
12 years later, as a ship carrying many of her friends and enemies from court goes sailing by, Prospera uses sorcery to call up a fearsome storm, wrecks the ship, and conspires to land all the passengers ashore to taste her revenge. Much wandering about the island ensues, as the audience plays Name That Actor. Yes, that's Chris Cooper as the usurper brother, Antonio, and David Strathairn as the stoic, noble neighboring king, Alonso. Tom Conti emanates twinkly goodness as Alonzo's old counselor, Gonzalo, sympathetic to Prospera. For comedy relief, we have Alfred Molina as the drunken butler, Stephano, and Russell Brand as court jester Trinculo, the buffoons that poor Caliban mistakes for gods.
(Btw, I, for one, think Brand is perfectly cast as the jester, beribboned, in his tattered dandy's finery, with his working-class accent and pragmatic opportunism. Trinculo is not one of Shakespeare's wise, soulful clowns, like Feste or Lear's Fool, and Brand dives in with the antic brio of an innate funnyman who understands he has to be amusing or starve. Check out this video of Brand's hilarious 5-minute improv on his character's backstory to see how he gets into the spirit of the thing.)
Meanwhile, Prospera's now-grown daughter, Miranda (Felicity Jones, as a barefoot wild-child) falls in love with the first white man she's ever seen—Alonso's stalwart young son Ferdinand (Reeve Carney, of the band, Carney, and star of the upcoming Spider-Man Broadway musical). But the most profound relationship is between Prospera and Whishaw's wonderfully fey, yet heartfelt Ariel, who serves her with glee, yet risks her wrath daring to remind her of her promise to set him free. With a female Prospera, their usual master-servant, parent-child relationship takes on a complex new dynamic (especially as they bandy about the question of love). She may use him to her own ends, like Elizabeth I deploying one of her besotted courtiers, but its Ariel's poignant suit for justice that helps restore this wily female sorceress to her full humanity.
What disappoints about this film is that so much of the magic feels so earthbound. Titus was such a visual treat because of the way Taymor made her simple, yet dazzlingly poetic stagecraft work onscreen—the eerie, percussive dance of marching soldiers; fountain statues morphing into live figures in a bathhouse; yards of blood-red ribbon issuing from a tongueless mouth. But most of her magical effects here are CGI. You can feel Taymor's delight in being able to realize her wildest images onscreen, and, sure, it's a kick when Ariel tears across the screen in all directions, growing huge and tiny, racing rings around himself. But it just doesn't have the same "cool" factor, in terms of sheer ingenuity.
Still, the package is intriguing. The music by longtime Taymor collaborator Elliot Goldenthal combines electronics, soaring chorales, and peppery pagan-influenced rhythms. Sandy Powell's costumes range from the punk aesthetic of black leather and chains to the sort of found plumage and ruined finery one might scavenge on a deserted island. This Tempest is certainly roiling with ideas, and if it's not Taymor's most successful work, it nonetheless sweeps you along for the ride.