The centerpiece of the New York Film Festival, "The Tempest," is state of the art Julie Taymor, that is, a study in the spectacular. The ashen spirit Ariel darts behind trees in the barren terrain of the Shakespearean island forest in multiples, to say nothing of the heavens conjured and riled by the tap of Prospero's crooked stick. But here is Taymor's twist: Prospero, long the private plum of aging actors much as he was created in the playwright's senior years, is now Prospera. Introducing her in the grandeur of Alice Tully Hall on Saturday, Taymor announced, here is our sorceress. And Helen Mirren, always the queen, resplendent in sequins, glimmered onto the stage.
What does this gender bending do for Shakespeare's late-life tale of shipwreck and betrayal? Taymor had directed an off-Broadway version early on, for Classic Stage Company, with a male lead. But a woman makes so much sense. Mirren supplies the requisite maturity: dozens of close-ups show her age unadorned with the magic of makeup, and she is above all else a mother, to Miranda, metaphorically to Ariel (the wiry Ben Whishaw), and to his earthly counterpart Caliban (Djimon Hounsou).
Composer Elliot Goldenthal said that the final coda over the credits was set to music --sung to haunting perfection by the band Portishead's Beth Gibbons-- after the film was put to bed. It will be amazing to see what Taymor does for the "Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark" musical, premiering on Broadway in November.
As viewers queued up for the long line leading to the Empire Hotel's rooftop for the afterparty, it was hard to speak, hard to get over the return to contemporary English after the exquisite immersion of The Tempest.
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