By Courteney Merritt

This film is a study in contradictions. It would be hard to assemble more of an all-star cast than director Julie Taymor managed for her adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”  – Helen Mirren, David Strathairn, Tom Conti, Alan Cumming, Chris Cooper, Djimon Hounsou, Russell Brand, Alfred Molina. However, in this case, quality plus quantity in terms of Oscar caliber actors does not necessarily equate to a hit.

(Cliff Notes for those of us who dozed through high school English…in the original version of the play, Prospero, Duke of Milan, is usurped and exiled to an island with his young daughter Miranda. Twelve years later, Prospero orchestrates a storm to bring his brother Antonio and his co-conspirator King of Naples Alonso back to the island to restore order.)

In Taymor’s adaptation, she has feminized the lead to allow Helen Mirren to assume the role of Prospera. As far as other changes, well, that’s really about the only one, which is a bit disappointing, made even more so by the fact that Taymor has admitted in interviews that the alteration was rather arbitrary, made merely because she didn’t favor any particular male actors.

Some of the acting is noteworthy, Mirren in particular, but not enough to sustain an otherwise troubled product. Because she never breaks her serious countenance, it is difficult to discern what her true intensions are, which muddies the end of the plot. The quartet of noblemen consisting of Strathairn, Conti, Cumming and Cooper engage in fairly dull interaction. Cumming delivers his lines with a grimace appropriate to his character, but it is ironic because it almost serves as tacit acknowledgment that he is being underutilized. Strathairn and Conti are reliable as usual, but Cooper is woefully miscast. Although relegated to a minor doe-eyed role, Felicity Jones as Miranda is a breath of fresh air as an Elizabethan incarnation of Molly Ringwald. Less noteworthy is her scrawny love interest Ferdinand (Reeve Carney). Their scenes together lack chemistry and even Shakespeare has a hard time convincing us that they could fall in love so completely in, um, what is it? – oh yeah, three hours. Miranda seems to suggest it is more out of lack of options since no men reside on the island, which diminishes the sincerity of her affections.

Djimon Hounsou makes more of a memorable impression as the mud caked Caliban, and Whitshaw’s pale androgynous Ariel is mesmerizing yet creepy all at the same time.  True to Shakespeare’s formula, the subplot involving Caliban, Stefano and Trinculo is meant to provide comic relief, however it is incorporated awkwardly. Perhaps it is hard to appreciate the humor given the stiff Elizabethan language, or it might be that (despite early reviews praising his performance in a feat of stunt casting gone awry) it is disconcerting to see Russell Brand playing Russell Brand as drunken dandy Trinculo. For whatever reason, these scenes do not provide the requisite lightheartedness to balance out the melodrama best epitomized by the opening scene’s “it was a dark and stormy night” cliché, which pervades the tone for the story’s duration.

In the film’s defense, authentic Shakespeare is tricky under the best of circumstances. But Taymor can be faulted for relying so heavily on the source material. And thus, the contradictions become evident. Taymor utilizes the sparse landscape of her volcanic Hawaiian milieu in a powerful manner, yet at times the set looks blatantly fake and low-budget. The costumes are not traditional for the era (and we are only left to assume that the story is taking place in the 1600s even though it is not explicitly stated) – they try to replicate a “feel” for the era while adding a modern twist, but the zipper-laden doublets look like “Project Runway” rejects. (I can almost hear Tim Gunn in the background “Modernize the garb in ‘The Tempest’…I don’t care how you do it, just make it work!”) There are some really nice visuals in the film, but excessive CGI effects ultimately doom the essence of the product.  All of the elements in tandem lend the piece an overall cheesiness which it struggles admirably to transcend.

This will probably get some Oscar attention because it is Shakespeare. Look for Mirren to get some buzz, as well as costumes and cinematography, but for this Oxford-educated lit major, this was a disappointing adaptation.