Prospera (Mirren), an exiled noblewoman with magical powers, conjures a storm to lure a ship onto their remote island home, hoping to find a suitor for her daughter. By chance, among the shipwrecked crewmen is her brother Antonio (Cooper), the architect of her downfall, offering Prospera an irresistible opportunity for revenge.
Shakespeare and Disney make strange bedfellows, notwithstanding its recent involvement with Gnomeo & Juliet. But when you’ve made an ailing Hollywood studio a billion dollars, as Taymor did by adapting The Lion King for the stage, you sometimes get a ‘golden ticket’ opportunity to do Whatever You Like (Within Reason, or rather, Under Budget). Julie Taymor, who followed her startlingly assured biopic of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo with an imaginative adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, and oddball love story Across The Universe, uses her carte blanche to return to the source of her first theatrical production: Shakespeare’s tempestuous tale of shipwreck, sorcery, love and revenge — like Lost, but written by the Bard.
Taymor’s take is intended as interpretative rather than definitive, and so it proves: for a start, she switches the central role’s gender, so instead of Prospero the over-protective father, we have ‘Prospera’ (Helen Mirren) the overbearing mother. It’s a brilliant conceit, the gender switch lending Prospera’s betrayal an agreeably apposite whiff of patriarchal sexism. And Mirren is on formidable form.
Bringing various Shakespeare texts to the screen between 1989 and 2006, Kenneth Branagh assembled eclectic casts and generally made them work; Taymor’s skill in this regard is populating her film with actors who, with one exception, give the impression that no other casting was possible. Russell Brand and Alfred Molina as the drunken double-act, Trinculo and Stephano? Djimon Hounsou as the bestial Caliban, and Perfume’s Ben Whishaw as an ethereal, androgynous Ariel? Chris Cooper as the serpentine Antonio? Yes, please! Only Reeve Carney, who plays Peter Parker in Taymor’s ill-starred Spider-Man musical Turn Off The Dark, lets the ensemble down, unable to hold his own among such sterling company, or even his scenes with Miranda (Felicity Jones).
Although marshalling 21st-century special effects to depict what Shakespeare managed to conjure with language might be seen as gilding the lily, Tempest has just the right amount of visual pizzazz, from the imaginatively low-key effects work, to Sandy Powell’s spot-on costume design, and the landscape itself (privately owned island Lana’i). As arresting, diverse and wildly unpredictable as the text itself.
Taymors winningly cast, imaginative take on Shakespeare passes the test of bringing the Bard to film. It may also be the only PG Disney film to contain the word Fuck.