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Taymor Talks Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” Stars Mirren as Prospera: “It’s more powerful with a woman”

Taymor Talks Shakespeare's "Tempest," Stars Mirren as Prospera: "It's more powerful with a woman"

While director Julie Taymor has been getting a lot of ink about her $60-million musical Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark, which is finally opening on Broadway with Bono and Edge’s music, less attention is being paid to her Shakespeare movie The Tempest, which opens Friday. Alas, this defiant art film is getting lost in the year-end deluge as Ron Tudor’s deal to buy Disney’s Miramax specialty label finally closes, and Disney pays more heed to the fate of bigger-budget entries such as Tangled and Tron: Legacy. “It needs to get seen,” Taymor says of the $20-million period drama in iambic pentameter. “You don’t have to get every word.”

Although Taymor’s indie-funded The Tempest debuted in Venice and played the New York Festival, there hasn’t been much buzz. It’s one of three Helen Mirren movies out this year (along with the best-forgotten Love Ranch and the surprise hit Red; a fourth, John Madden’s thriller The Debt, will come out in 2011). In The Tempest, the Shakespearean actress is powerfully vibrant as a female Prospero: she commands the screen whenever she is on, which unfortunately is not all the time. Some of her best scenes are with young lovers Miranda and Ferdinand (well-cast Brit actress Felicity Jones and L.A. rocker Reeve Carney, who plays Peter Parker in Spider-Man) and a brilliant Ben Whishaw (Bright Star) as hermaphrodite Ariel. In this case, Taymor’s concept of throwing fairy Ariel into a vortex of visual effects works well.

But the rest of the movie, which was shot on stunning magma promontories on Hawaii, is more earth-bound. Djimon Hounsou is visually arresting as the blue-eyed, web-fingered mixed-race Caliban, who rebels against his abusive mistress, Prospera. But he is saddled with comedians Russell Brand (Trinculo), who is flat-footed here, and Alfred Molina (Stephano), who tries mightily but cannot save the day. The other strand of weary travelers lost on the island, played by wily American veterans Chris Cooper (Antonio, new to Shakespeare) and David Straithairn (King Alonso, Ferdinand’s father) and Brits Alan Cumming (Sebastian) and Bill Conti (Gonzalo), come off better. They’re amusing, at least. But the constant interweaving of the three disparate groups becomes disjointed and tiring and never comes together in a meaningful way.

Taymor brings her customary visual and aural panache to the 35 mm film, with costumes from Oscar-winner Sandy Powell, cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh, production design by Mark Friedberg and score from the superb Elliot Goldenthal, who brought in Portishead’s Beth Gibbons on the soundtrack, among several other original songs. Certainly, Taymor (Titus) knows her Shakespeare. “My films are different,” she says in an understatement. “I’d rather be in a place where I get very excited; I’d rather not be in a namby-pamby world.”

Taymor reminds that The Tempest was Shakespeare’s “last great masterpiece,” written as a combination of a May Play and a Romance/Comedy/Burlesque. “The play goes from pure romance to slapstick to revenge drama,” she says. “I love how avant-garde Shakespeare is, more than any contemporary writer. He doesn’t let you rest easy.” Turning Prospero into a woman just makes the play better: “It’s more powerful with a woman.” Women over 35, much less Mirren’s age, face diminishing roles in the great Shakespeare plays. Taymor insisted on shooting Mirren without makeup, and thinks this role should be added to the Shakespeare canon for women. “It doesn’t change the heart of the play, it changes the character of the play, with a younger Ariel and older female Prospera. Ariel is androgynous.”

Because Whishaw wasn’t able to come to Hawaii, Taymor crafted his scenes in a green-screen studio, with effects and a water tank (“full fathom five”). Mirren was playing to her imagination: the 5 ‘ 11” actor wasn’t there. Taymor fashioned an oil-black Harpy costume for Ariel, complete with black makeup and giant dripping wings. “The last thing I wanted was a CG Ariel,” she said. “He has human facial expression. He’s a spirit.”

Taymor is giddily supportive of her disparate cast: “I couldn’t have been more thrilled with the actors: they were distinct, funny, accessible.” She caught Russell Brand’s stand-up act and asked him to do the role the next day. She saw him as a “low-life ratty court jester,” she says. “He’s perfect. His accent is appropriate for someone in that level of society. It was not a stretch to cast Russell. He’s a good actor. He has chops. He took naturally to this, his improvisations were stellar.” London stage actress Felicity Jones scored in auditions: “She feels contemporary, fresh, young. American actresses were not capable of making the language fly,” says Taymor. “They don’t transcend time.” American Carney, on the other hand was tackling one of the most difficult roles in Shakespeare, Taymor says: “He gave the best audition, the most natural, honest. It’s a very passive, non-contemporary role–‘I believe in love and first sight.'”

She was more worried about African actor Hounsou, for whom English is his fourth language. It’s a discomfiting part no matter who plays it, Taymor says, because Prospera mistreats the character and his anger turns toward raping her daughter. “You never know who to side with,” she says, “who the protagonist is. He hates Prospera, who usurps his kingdom.” Hounsou sat through four hours of make-up a day, and faced the elements almost nude. She sees Caliban as a half-white, half-black man of the earth. “He represents the island, Shakespeare’s theme of nature vs. nurture,” she says. “He goes from being this fearsomely powerful dauntingly physical presence to giving the most heart-breakingly beautiful speech in the play.”

Finally, Taymor considers herself to be a mythic storyteller with a strong connection to fairy tales that go far back in time, from Indonesia, where she spent four years studying puppet theater, and The Tempest‘s Prospera, who abuses the dark arts until they overtake her, to Spider-Man. “Anybody can be Spider-Man,” she says. “It’s the same theme. With great power comes great responsibility.”

Here’s my Taymor profile for Across the Universe, A. O. Scott’s NYTimes review, a link to Metacritic’s review page, and the The Tempest trailer:

And two-part flip-cam interview from Cannes:

Taymor Part 1:

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Part 2:

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