The Tempest

Written by:
Renata Polt
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Left to right: Helen Mirren, Felcity Jones and Djimon Hounsou in Julie Taymor’s “The Tempest”

The Tempest

Directed by Julie Taymor
Screenplay by William Shakespeare and Julie Taymor
Run Time: 110 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG13

If there’s an actor today who can portray Prospero, the sorcerer hero of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” it has to be Helen Mirren.

Say what?

Yes, that’s Helen Mirren playing Prospera, ruler of the island on which she and her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones) have lived as castaways for the past 12 years. The rightful Duchess of Milan, she has been betrayed and her position usurped by her brother Antonio (Chris Cooper). As the story opens, Prospera has caused a ferocious tempest to wreck the ship on which Antonio, Alonso King of Naples (David Strathairn), Alonso’s son Ferdinand (Reeve Carney), and an assorted troupe of nobles, hell-raisers, and sailors have been traveling.

On her island, Prospera rules over Ariel, “an airy spirit” played by Ben Whishaw (“Bright Star”‘s John Keats) and Caliban, “a savage and deformed Slave” (Djimon Hounsou).

The director is Julie Taymor, creator of the hit Broadway musical “The Lion King” and the just-opened stage musical of “Spiderman.” That her “Tempest” is a stunning piece of work comes as no surprise.

But back to Helen Mirren.

Of course the casting of Mirren gives a slight feminist spin to the story, but actually it changes little. Prospera remains the alternatingly imperious and kindly power with which the role is traditionally played. Her face, un-Botoxed and seemingly free of makeup, is a canvas for the strong emotions-rage, pity, affection-that determine her actions. “The Tempest,” Shakespeare’s last play, is often interpreted as the playwright’s farewell to his magic, as the hero(ine) finally relinquishes his/her powers. Mirren conveys that idea superbly.

The spirit Ariel is portrayed as a wild-haired adolescent, sometimes, through the magic of special effects, shown as a transparent being, sometimes as a multiple. Mischievous and also sensitive and merciful, he flies about the island doing Prospera’s bidding. Wispy Ben Whishaw is more convincing in this role than he was as Keats.

A less fortuitous bit of casting is that of African-born Calvin Klein underwear model Djimon Hounsou as Caliban. In startling makeup (caked mud, different shades of tan and brown), he does indeed look savage. But the notion of casting an African as a slave, of all things, somehow doesn’t go down well. Not to mention the fact that Prospera–at least according to Caliban–stole the island from him.

Among the stars of the film is that island–or more properly, those Hawaiian islands on which it’s filmed, complete with dramatic cliffs, dense forests, acres of black rocks, mountains, serene beaches–everything but high-rise condo buildings. The islands’ physicality threatens to give the lie to Prospera’s declaration that life is but an “insubstantial pageant.”

But the people come first. Miranda and Ferdinand discover each other and instantly fall in love (with Prospera pulling the strings). Finally, Miranda, on seeing the whole shipwrecked crew–she can’t remember ever seeing a human other than her mother, and, more recently, Ferdinand–exclaims, “O, wonder!/How many goodly creaters are there here!/How beauteous manking is! O brave new world,/That has such people in ‘t!”

Seeing Julie Taymor’s version of Shakespeare’s most lyrical play, you can almost believe it.

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