Director Julie Taymor gender bends The Tempest in casting Helen Mirren as the all-powerful magician banished to a deserted island. Renamed Prospera, the script is a well-adapted version of Shakespeare's last play, with minor gender changes in the script to make it all work. Mirren (The Queen, Gosford Park) plays the great sorceress with the wisdom and gravitas the role demands.
The standout of the cast is Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator, Amistad) as Caliban. Hounsou is more than your average Calvin Klein underwear model—he's a smart actor that gives depth to the savage role, especially as he slithers away once his revengeful plan has failed. Equally compelling to watch is Ben Whishaw as an asexual Ariel. Early interviews with the actor revealed that he had conflicts with the filming schedule so he ended up shooting all of his scenes without any other actors—an amazing accomplishment considering Mirren and others also worked without his presence.
Felicity Jones and Reeve Carney are perfectly cast as the star-crossed lovers, Miranda and Ferdinand. Carney, a rock musician, is starring in what will likely be the most popular (or at least the most accident-prone) Broadway musical of the year, Spiderman: Turn off the Dark. As the director of Spiderman, Julie Taymor saw one of his concerts, cast him in the musical and urged him to read for the film. Jones, a UK native and relative newcomer, is innocently radiant, and both give their all to make their true love compelling.
Alan Cumming and David Strathairn both turn in solid, yet unremarkable performances. Alfred Molina has some nice moments as the drunkard Stephano. Chris Cooper (The Bourne Identity) gives a mediocre performance as Antonio, the traitorous brother to Prospera. His accent, too, is difficult to place, becoming a perplexing mix of American, Irish, Scottish, and various UK regional dialects.
The Miscast Actor or the Year Award goes to Russell Brand as Trinculo. His trademark hairstyle and speech pattern stood out from the rest of the cast like a sore thumb. None of his contrived antics—including his traipsing around in a woman's dress—could save his interpretation. One can only assume he was there to attract the younger crowd.
But Mirren is the glue that holds the film together. She is merciless in plotting her revenge, yet merciful when she finally has her enemies powerless in her grasp.
The musical score by Elliot Goldenthal appears to be a half-hearted attempt at making the film "cool" for younger audiences with the occasional rock score. But it is more of a distraction to the overall magical feeling than an enhancement.
Sandy Powell's costumes are magnificent in every scene. Prospera's outfits are suitably magical and the officers' uniforms are a classy design take-off on zipper patterns. It is a subtle touch but clever. Having done Shakespeare in Love, Gangs of New York, The Departed, and a number of other Academy Award winning films, she is definitely the best production choice Taymor makes for the film.
The film overall is a good example of "mainstream Shakespeare"—the kind of Shakespeare that takes certain liberties in editing and casting to appeal to the most number of people. With Mirren at the helm, this is a tempting Tempest.