For Shakespeare's 'Tempest,' A Motley Makeover Changing Shakespeare's Prospero into a woman may be an interesting twist on an oft-told tale, but even Helen Mirren's magic can't elevate this yarn above its tangle of tones and influences.
NPR logo For Shakespeare's 'Tempest,' A Motley Makeover



For Shakespeare's 'Tempest,' A Motley Makeover

A Potent Art: Helen Mirren stars as Prospera, a powerful sorceress exiled on a lonely island. Seeking revenge and a mainland future for her daughter, she conjures up a storm that wracks a ship bearing her enemies and blows it to her island's shores. Melinda Sue Gordon/Miramax hide caption

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Melinda Sue Gordon/Miramax

The Tempest

  • Director: Julie Taymor
  • Genre: Shakespearean Tragicomedy
  • Running Time: 110 minutes

Rated PG-13 for some nudity, suggestive content, and ominous imagery

With: Helen Mirren, Djimon Hounsou, Russell Brand, Chris Cooper, Alan Cumming, Alfred Molina

Watch Clips

From 'The Tempest' - 'This Island Is Mine!'

'This Island Is Mine!'

From 'The Tempest' - 'Admired Miranda'

'Admired Miranda'

From 'The Tempest' - 'Strange Bedfellows'

'Strange Bedfellows'

"O brave new world, that has such people in't"?

That cry of wonder is not the likely median reaction to Julie Taymor's film of The Tempest. Despite dramatic Hawaiian locations, up-to-date visual effects and a bit of nontraditional casting, the movie feels not especially brave and far from new.

The Tempest has been filmed more than a dozen times. Celebrated foremost for Shakespeare's language, the play was first adapted by silent-era directors. In recent decades it's inspired wild cinematic riffs: Derek Jarman did a gay, punky Tempest in 1980. Paul Mazursky relocated the story to the modern era two years later. Peter Greenaway discarded the name (and most of the characters) for 1991's Prospero's Books.

Taymor's approach is more orthodox, despite the sex-change operation she performs on the central character, a sorcerer and Italian noble unjustly exiled to an exotic island (which was probably inspired by early reports about Bermuda). Helen Mirren plays Prospera, who seeks both vengeance and a comfortable future for her daughter, Miranda. (It's the latter who marvels at the "brave new world.") Mother and child live alone, save for two vassals: the earthy Caliban (here caked with dried mud) and the ethereal Ariel (butt-naked, but rendered incorporeal with special effects).

Conjuring up a mighty storm, Prospera drives a ship toward her home. Onboard are five Italian aristocrats -- including her usurper, Antonio -- and two comic-relief figures. Separated into three parties, the men wander the island in various states of confusion. Eventually, they re-encounter each other, and submit to Prospera's plans for redressing the wrongs they've done.

Although not as belligerently anachronistic as Taymor's cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, her Tempest is a jumble of tones, epochs and inspirations. Mostly, it draws on contemporary Hollywood and on the era of Hair, Godspell and Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet -- the Aquarian age, in which showbiz first learned how to assimilate hippie aesthetics.

Chris Cooper (left) and Alan Cumming star as Antonio, who stole Prospera's position, and Sebastian, brother to the King of Naples. Melinda Sue Gordon/Miramax hide caption

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Melinda Sue Gordon/Miramax

Chris Cooper (left) and Alan Cumming star as Antonio, who stole Prospera's position, and Sebastian, brother to the King of Naples.

Melinda Sue Gordon/Miramax

The movie's Hollywood aspects include its reliance on computer-generated imagery -- although the director also uses the old-fashioned effect of filming through a layer of water -- and the motley casting. Classically trained British stage actors crash their styles and accents against those of veteran American character players (including Chris Cooper and David Strathairn as incongruous Italian nobles). And fake-Cockney Russell Brand plays his scenes as if The Tempest were just another bad-boy gross-out comedy -- even if his foils this time are Alfred Molina and Djimon Hounsou rather than Jonah Hill.

When the tone switches from boisterous to poetic, the vibe is very 1970. Elliot Goldenthal's uninspired score pits surging strings against screaming acid-rock guitar, while Miranda (Felicity Jones) and new love Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) are required primarily to be young and pretty. Jones delivers her lines effectively enough, but Carney (star of the Taymor-directed Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway) is shakier.

Some of the movie's flaws have to do with the challenges of filming Shakespeare. The bard's speeches weren't meant to be delivered in close-up and can seem bombastic when they are -- even by a performer as skilled as Mirren. And the quick pace, designed to keep the tale to a length suitable for multiplexes, sometimes makes the film seem like a string of notable quotes: There's "full fathom five"; here comes "rough magic."

Yet Taymor's movie also compares poorly with other cinematic Tempests. It lacks the energy of Jarman's version, and it can't touch the visual invention of Greenaway's. This grab-bag film presents not a world, but an assortment of people, places and nations, none more goodly than any other.

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