BY NANCY R. MANDELL
She rants, she roars, she raves, she threatens and cajoles, she punishes and rewards, makes matches and magic. In fact, there's hardly anything Helen Mirren doesn't do in her commanding portrayal of Prospera, the protagonista Shakespeare never created to dominate "The Tempest," as reinterpreted for the big screen by the director, choreographer and in this case, screenwriter, Julie Taymor.
At present, Ms. Taymor is reportedly battling her special effects for the long-delayed Broadway opening of the musical "Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark." She has much better luck on-screen with gimmicks that range from a storm at sea (hence the title) to pyrotechnics and from the (literally) disembodied spirit of the loyal Ariel (an incredibly flexible Ben Wishaw) to the scaly embodiment of dissatisfaction that is her slave, Caliban (a remarkable performance by Djimon Hounsou),This year marks the 400th anniversary of the play that is believed to be one of the last the Bard wrote alone and a new Shakespearian role for Mirren who has played Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, and Ophelia for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The decision to turn the sorcerer Prospero into the sorceress Prospera actually makes good sense — at least to this reviewer. It injects a natural element of maternal concern to the character's relationship with her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones), while eliminating the masculine rivalry some associate with Prospero's attitude toward Prince Ferdinand (Reeve Carney), Miranda's suitor.
After an eye-catching special effect involving a sandcastle, the film opens with its title scene, "The Tempest" — a devastating storm at sea that appears to result in a shipwreck and loss of lives. But the tempest turns out to be the handiwork of Prospera, the lynchpin of her plan to end the bleak island exile to which she and Miranda were condemned by the brother/uncle who usurped the Dukedom of Milan after the death of Prospera's husband. Got it?
Anyway, it turns out that six survivors of the storm find themselves miraculously alive and well on Prospera's island — played most convincingly by the privately owned island of Lana'i and the Big Island of Hawai'i. Taymor, who directed the groundbreaking fantasy "The Lion King" on stage and the films "Frida," "Titus" (from Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" and "Across the Universe" decided to make use of the very real topography of the islands — at once beautiful, exotic and strange — providing an interesting contrast to the magical aspects of the story.
The language is authentically Shakespearean, although Taymor had to adapt the play to fit her vision — especially of the lead character as a woman. But the haunting song that plays over the titles is all Shakespeare. In fact, the lyrics are Prospero's final speech, usually delivered directly to the audience as a kind of coda to the play,
Would it be Shakespeare without some outrageous clowns? In this case, they are Stephano and Trinculo, the pair of buffoons played with expected proficiency by Alfred Molina and surprising delight by Russell Brand! Their scenes with Caliban — and their effect on the gullible creature — would surely make Shakespeare proud!
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Rounding out the cast are a recognizable Alan Cummings and Chris Cooper as aides to David Strathairn's distraught Alonso, the King of Naples, and Tom Conti (totally unrecognizable) as the all-too-garrulous advisor Gonzalo.
While the message that emerges from ‘The Tempest" emphasizes freedom from bondage, there are moments when you can't help but see this story as an inspiration for "Lost," the TV series that also cast disaster survivors on an island harboring secrets and spirits. In ‘The Tempest," however, it looks like almost everyone lives happily ever after, while on ‘Lost," they all turned out to be dead!
This film opened in New York City Friday, Dec. 10 and in wider release Dec. 17.