Director: Julie Taymor
Starring: Helen Mirren, Ben Whishaw, Djimon Hounsou, Felicity Jones, Chris Cooper, Alan Cumming, Russell Brand and Alfred Molina
The director Julie Taymor is no stranger to Shakespeare, having produced Titus – an adaptation of Titus Andronicus – in 1999, to great acclaim.
However, her latest boundary-pushing version of the Bard's tragicomedy The Tempest threatens to be a little too much for die-hard traditionalists.
This is not least because the protagonist – the ousted Duke of Milan, Prospero – appears as a woman in this film version, with Mirren playing the vexed and vengeful Prospera. Exiled from Italy and stripped of her duchy by her brother Antonio (Cooper) and his conspirator King Alonso (David Strathairn), she has been marooned on an inhospitable island with her daughter for more than a decade. Yet as a "practiser of the black arts", one swoosh of her crystal staff shipwrecks the cruel courtiers on her shores and she exacts her revenge upon them with the help of the sprite Ariel (Whishaw).
Mirren and Whishaw are the two standouts in this film and give mesmeric performances. Taymor's use of CGI spotlights Ariel to brilliant effect, as he flits between appearing as a will-o'-the-wisp-like figure and a demonic, black-feathered tormentor of the shipwrecked crew. Far from being a disrespectful interpretation of Shakespeare's work, Taymor's use of special effects and an equally powerful score, penned by Elliot Goldenthal, are nothing short of inspired. The Hawaiian island of Lanai also provides a fittingly dramatic backdrop with its varied landscape of lush groves, sandy canyons, volcanic crevices and forebodingly jagged cliffs.
Hounsou gives an energetic and compelling performance as the island's original inhabitant Caliban. Imagine Gollum's scary big brother with a flesh-eating condition and you get the general idea. However, the all-important verse is often tragically lost as his character charges and bounds around his rugged terrain. Taymor, who in recent months has been best known for her work on the troubled Spider-Man Broadway musical, has thankfully tampered very little with Shakespeare's original script which as Prospera's daughter Miranda says herself, it is a tale that "would cure deafness".
Though modern audiences often struggle with Shakespearean humour, Brand's uninhibited portrayal of the jester Trinculo provides the perfect antidote to Mirren's many scenes of tormented cliff-top bellowing. The role was tailor-made for him and I defy anyone to not laugh at his clumsy antics.
One last nod has to go to the Oscar-winning British designer Sandy Powell for the extravagant, couture costumes. Leather panelled, corseted Elizabethan gowns and zip trimmed courtier jackets look suitably austere and yet fittingly contemporary. It all works and Taymor has dealt with the Bard's last play in a delicate and highly innovative way.