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Julie Taymor puts her spin on ‘The Tempest’: Hits, misses & soceress Helen Mirren as Prospera

"The Tempest" is another of Julie Taymor's bold reimaginings of Shakespeare, this time with a huge gender switch at the center.

"The Tempest" is another of Julie Taymor's bold reimaginings of Shakespeare, this time with a huge gender switch at the center.

She takes Prospero, the marooned alchemist who lures rivals to his island exile, and turns him into Prospera, in the person of Helen Mirren.

Does this complicate our interpretation of the text?

I'm afraid so.

As when, early on, angry Prospera inflicts punishment on her disobedient slave, Caliban.

"For this, to be sure, tonight thou shalt have cramps!"

A womans revenge, for sure. Poor Caliban (Djimon Housnou). Afflicted with cramps that "shall pen up thy breath," and no Midol.

In other ways, Mirren wears the role well. The erstwhile "Queen" is comfortable under the mantle of authority, even vengeful authority - Prospera conjures the winds and waves that bring to her the men who expelled her from her rightful place in a European court.

So Prospera is part monarch, part sorceress, and has there ever been a better example of the latter than Mirren's Morgana in "Excalibur?"

Visual stylist Taymor must have been salivating at the prospect of remaking "The Tempest," set on Shakespeare's island of magic and illusions. Taymor chose to film on a remote Hawaiian island, whose dramatic landscape is suited to the material.

I wonder, though, why Taymor does not exploit perhaps the play's most cinematic element - the idea that the island presents a different physical reality to each shipwrecked person.

It's nominally there - we see men shaking swords at invisible demons - but Shakepeare's premise was leveraged more cleverly and thoughtfully on "Lost."

Other Taymor touches are brilliant. Prospera's right-hand ghost, Ariel (Ben Whishaw), is a miracle of transparent, evaporating shape-shifting imagery. His job is to help guide Prospera's shipwrecked enemies (David Straithairn, Alan Cumming, Chris Cooper) into a series of elaborate traps, while Prospera busies herself arranging the romance of her daughter (Felicity Jones) and an eligibile bachelor. (When in doubt, Shakespeare often threw in an arbitrary marriage to wrap things up. He would have been at home in Hollywood).

There's something a little discordant about Prospera's proto-feminist revenge on a male establishment, set against her matchmaker's desire to see her daughter married off. But it is the 15th century.

More discordant for me was the presence of Chris Cooper, who makes no attempt to adapt his 33 rpm Ozark drawl to the speed and precision of Shakespearean diction.