The Tempest is Shakespeare for Dummies—but I mean that in a good way, for the most part. Shakespeare always played to the cheap seats as well as the intelligentsia, and Julie Taymor’s production picks up on his populism, dialing the romance, buffoonery, sorcery, and soulful suffering up to 11.
The opening scene is a bad omen: The roar of the waves and the fire on the king’s sinking ship drown out most of Shakespeare’s words. But the language is almost always rendered faithfully and delivered clearly and well for the rest of the film, and the colors and sounds Taymor wraps around Shakespeare’s dialogue add more than they detract.
The anchor to this Tempest is Helen Mirren’s titanic performance as Prospera. Changing Prospero’s gender changes surprisingly little else, other than a few pronouns and the vowel at the end of the name. Mirren’s Prospera may project a more nurturing love than usual for Miranda and Ariel, but then maybe it’s we who are doing the projecting there, reading maternal love as more tender than paternal. Either way, what makes her performance memorable is not the novelty of her gender, but the greatness of her soul, as she rides Prospera’s outsized emotions like a champion jockey to a moving finish.
Just about everyone else plays second fiddle to the costumes and set design that are Taymor’s trademark. As usual in her films, these sometimes amplify themes and emotions nicely and sometimes degenerate into cliché. Lanai, the small but geographically diverse Hawaiian island where the movie was filmed, provides Caliban’s lair, Ariel’s prison, and the cliff from which Prospero conjures up storms ready-made. It also photographs beautifully, adding its own drama to Shakespeare’s already heady mix. But a lot of the CGI effects are trite and reductive (a hippy-trippy zodiac mandala Prospera draws in the sky could have come straight out of Taymor’s Across the Universe). So are images like the silhouetted figures Taymor sends dancing along ridges and melodramatic setups like the golden-lit love scene between Miranda and Ferdinand. And Prospera’s fashionably frayed island garb and the Neapolitan nobles’ zippered suits draw attention to themselves without having much to say other than “Look at me!”
The best use of CGI is the androgynous Ariel, who whooshes about like the airy spirit he/she is. Often popping up in two or more places at once, he/she trails wispy traces of afterimage. Ben Whishaw underplays the part, letting his hair gel and body paint do most of the talking, but most of other performances are broader, stretching to fit Taymor’s larger-than-life canvas. As Caliban, Djimon Hounsou scuttles like Gollum, roars like a wounded bull, and sucks up Uriah Heep-style to Stephano (Alfred Molina, excellent as always), making Shakespeare’s victim of colonialism more fool than tragic figure. Russell Brand fits into this company surprisingly well, with his colorful scarves, waggling ass, and anti-RSC accent, as one of the fools who provide comic relief. Like the movie as a whole, Brand made me wince now and then, but not nearly as much as he made me smile.
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.