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). 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.
The absence of a definite article in the opening titles suggests that 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’ (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 in his scenes with Miranda (Jones).Although marshalling 21st century special effects to depict what Shakespeare managed to conjure purely with language might be seen as gilding the lily, Taymor’s Tempest has just the right amount of visual pizzazz, from the imaginatively low-key effects work, to Sandy Powell’s spot-on costume design, to the landscape itself (privately-owned Hawaiian island Lana’i) – as arresting, diverse and wild unpredictable and as the text itself.
Taymor’s winningly cast, thrillingly imaginative take on Shakespeare’s final masterpiece passes the ultimate test of bringing the Bard to film, being accessible without compromising the text. It may also be the only PG-related Disney film to contain the word ‘Fuck’, as Molina drops the F-bomb after stumbling on a particularly craggy bit of island.