The Tempest -- Film Review

Shakespeare lovers will be divided on Julie Taymor's flashy-smooth adaptation of the Bard's great and possibly last comedy.  

Shakespeare lovers will be divided on Julie Taymor's flashy-smooth adaptation of the Bard's great and possibly last comedy. Far less daring than her 1999 "Titus," which took an electrifying, stylized approach of a lesser-known play, "The Tempest" in comparison looks disappointingly middle-of-the-road. Even the great Helen Mirren, who usurps the masculine lead as Prospera, is steady and reliable but unexciting. But this attractive and easy-to-digest production, full of music, special effects and musical dialogue, likely will fulfill many viewers' expectations and ring up more business than a revolutionary version.

That brings to mind Derek Jarman's 1979 adaptation, an iconoclastic struggle to reconcile Shakespeare with cinematic language, which concluded with a joyous jazz rendition of Stormy Weather. Quite a different approach to the present film. The fact that Taymor is known for inventive groundbreaking -- from her stage direction of The Lion King to her Beatles salute Across the Universe -- throws into relief how little effort has gone into rethinking the play, compared to the enormous and visible production work.

Sent into exile 12 years earlier when her ambitious brother Antonio (Chris Cooper) usurped her kingdom to become the Duke of Milan, Prospera and her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones) have lived on an enchanted island ever since, served by two slaves: the brutish Caliban (Djimon Hounsou) and his opposite number, the romantic wind sprite Ariel (Ben Whishaw).

Prospera is a powerful sorceress who can calm a raging storm at sea with a flick of her wand. Actually, it was she who created the storm and a dramatic shipwreck, which sweeps to the island her old enemies, including bad bro' Antonio, Alonso the King of Naples (a nobler-than-thou David Strathairn) and his brother Sebastian (a foppish Alan Cumming). They make fun of Prospera's old friend, the good Gonzalo (Tom Conti), as they explore the island.

Like a stand-in for Shakespeare, Prospera runs the show, putting actors on- and offstage at her pleasure. With Ariel's help, she keeps the noblemen from killing one another while she arranges for the king's callow son Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) to fall in love with wide-eyed Miranda. Meanwhile, she prepares her own revenge and comeback for the final scenes.

The island where Tempest takes place is as magical as the play itself, and Taymor underscores the dramatic and varied beauty of the Hawaii locations. But Stuart Dryburgh's cinematography often fails to transform the bright Hawaiian sunshine into mystery, leaving faces and vegetation disquietingly au naturel.

In contrast, the visual effects work led by Kyle Cooper sets off fantasies rich and strange. Most of these involve Ariel, who gets star billing with his delicate way of speeding through the sky, leaving a trail of afterimages, and channeling natural forces to do Prospera's bidding. His transformation into a frightful Harpy tormenting the foolish nobles is a very effective scene. As a reward for his service, he's promised his freedom.

Boss lady makes no such promise to the charmless "moon calf" Caliban, covered with black-and-white patches of dried mud to emphasize his earthy nature, in case someone missed it. Hounsou's anger against her haughty colonialism certainly is powerful, but his claim to be the rightful owner of the island elicits little sympathy, especially after he adopts two comical sailors (Russell Brand as Trinculo and Alfred Molina as Stephano) as his gods.

As the young lovers, Jones and Carney are the picture of innocence, and their attractively modern faces seem ready to burst into a Beatles ballad at any second. With charming ease, Jones delivers some of the play's best lines, like the "O brave new world, that has such creatures in it" speech.

In cropped gray hair and mannish pants, Mirren is an androgynous, asexual sorceress whose cold, weathered face recalls that she has acquired her magic the hard way, plugging away at thick books while insisting on her right to study in a man's world. In her hands is the theme of power, its uses and abuses, recalling, with a sigh, her tour-de-force performance in The Queen.

Often the filmmakers appear unable to resist irritating cleverness, like anachronistically costuming the rich people from Milan in black suede zipper jackets that look fresh off the catwalk. These stylish costumes, which might look great on a theater stage, are much too foregrounded in a film in which they feel like an overextended gag. Similarly, many of the film's visual ideas are dishearteningly theatrical, like the last set in Prospera's weird-looking castle.

True to her musical origins, Taymor injects several haunting sung interludes, most notably Whishaw's performance of "Full fathom five thy father lies" set to music by Elliot Goldenthal.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)

Production: Touchstone, Miramax, Chartoff/Hendee Prods., TalkStory Prods., Artemisia Films, Mumbai Mantra
Cast: Helen Mirren, Felicity Jones, Ben Whishaw, Chris Cooper, Djimon Hounsou, Tom Conti, David Strathairn, Alfred Molina, Alan Cumming, Russell Brand, Reeve Carney
Director: Julie Taymor
Screenwriter: Julie Taymor from the play by William Shakespeare
Executive producers: John C. Ching, Deborah Lau, Ron Bozman, Tino Purik, Rohit Khattar, Stewart Till, Anthony Buckner, Greg Strasburg
Producers: Julie Taymor, Robert Chartoff, Lynn Hendee, Julia Taylor-Stanley, Jason K. Lau
Director of photography: Stuart Dryburgh
Production designer: Mark Friedberg
Music: Elliot Goldenthal
Costume designer: Sandy Powell
Editor: Francoise Bonnot
Visual effects supervisor: Kyle Cooper
Sales agent: Icon International Entertainment
No rating, 110 minutes