Friday, October 01, 2010

NYFF ’10: The Tempest

It was neither a political statement nor a cheap gimmick. Director Julie Taymor and the accomplished Helen Mirren wanted to work together on a Shakespeare project, but the Bard just did not write a lot of great parts for women over the age of thirty-five or so. Yet, both independently considered the role of Prospero a possibility. After an early reading confirmed their hopes, the role of Prospero became Prospera in their resulting collaboration, The Tempest, the centerpiece selection of the 48th New York Film Festival, which screens tomorrow night at Alice Tully Hall.

When the Duke of Milan dies, his wife Prospera succeeds him, but not for long. Usurped by her unscrupulous brother Antonio, with the backing of King Alonso of Naples, Prospera and her daughter Miranda are cast adrift, presumably to die at sea. However, the loyal court counselor Gonzalo secretly stocked the slip with food, water, and Prospera’s magic books. Twelve years later, Prospera uses her command of the elements to shipwreck the vessel carrying Antonio, Alonso, his son Ferdinand, the good Gonzalo, and various ne’er do well retainers. Prospera and her indentured servant, Ariel the air spirit, toy with the treacherous royals, while encouraging romance to blossom between Ferdinand and Miranda. Further complicating matters, the fools Trinculo and Stephano conspire with Prospera’s resentful slave Caliban in an ill-conceived revolt.

Despite the changes necessitated by Taymor’s gender switch, her adaptation follows the original Shakespeare quite closely. She also earns points for not flinching in politically correct horror from depicting Caliban as Shakespeare described him: a black slave driven by rage for his master. Still, she works with actor Djimon Hounsou to humanize him as best they can, within the confines of the text.

Make no mistake though, The Tempest is Mirren’s film, pure and simple. She truly digs into the role, finding fresh humanistic insights, irrespective of Prospero/a’s gender. Perhaps her deepest work comes with Ben Whishaw’s androgynous Ariel, cutting to the core of the play’s themes of forgiveness and empathy. In truth, the rest of the ensemble just cannot keep pace with her. Surprisingly, Chris Cooper and David Strathairn are indistinguishably bland as the royal co-conspirators Antonio and Alonso, respectively. A genuine case of gimmicky casting, Russell Brand’s same old profane goofball schtick becomes an embarrassing distraction as the jester Trinculo (frankly, it was already getting tired). At least Felicity Jones and Reeve Carney exhibit some appealing chemistry as the young lovers.

Taymor’s Tempest is a good Shakespeare adaptation that picks up steam as it goes along, but never quite takes flight. The Hawaiian locales, particularly the black volcanic beaches, dramatically evoke the play’s otherworldliness and Mirren gives a powerhouse performance. There just seems to be an X-factor missing. Certainly entertaining, The Tempest screens tomorrow as the centerpiece of the 2010 New York Film Festival.