Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Or a usurped duchess with magical powers, for that matter. Prospera (Helen Mirren), having been dethroned by her brother (Chris Cooper) and banished to a desolate isle with her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones), has been biding her time some twelve years, planning her revenge and a return to her beloved Milan.
The Tempest, Shakespeare's final, and some might say least work has been re-imagined for the cinema by Julie Taymor, a director known for her bold visual strokes. But the boldest feature of her take on the Bard (her second following Titus (1999)), would appear to be the gender reassignment of the story's main character; transforming Prospero to Prospera, and casting Dame Helen Mirren in the role.
Mirren, like the best of British actors, could no doubt recite Shakespeare in her sleep and she provides a solid anchor for the action of Taymor's film which is divided between Prospera's daughter Miranda and her new found love, the sappy Prince Ferdinand (Reeve Carney); Ferdinand's father, King Alonso (David Strathairn), Antonio (Cooper), Sebastian (Alan Cummings) and Gonzalo (Tom Conti), traversing another side of the isle; and Stephano (Alfred Molina), Trinculo (Russell Brand), two royal servants who are mistaken for gods by Caliban (Djimon Hounsou), original inhabitant of the island and now slave to Propsera.
For me, it's the casting of Hounsou in the role of Caliban which undermines any claims Taymor may have to boldness. Casting a woman in a man's role shouldn't really be considered daring in 2011, but casting a black man in the role of a native slave (Caliban being a rough anagram of cannibal) just seems unnecessary.
Shakespeare's text may have had some colonial significance 400 years ago but in 2011, the role of an enslaved man (or woman) need not be black. Of course, Djimon Hounsou in a loin cloth will no doubt appeal to several demographics.
There should always be a place for Shakespeare on the big screen, and bold, imaginative and original interpretations at that. And Taymor's The Tempest isn't without its appeal, but at just under two hours it almost induces flashbacks to high school, where the Bard was often a chore and not a joy.