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See 'The Tempest' now; soon it may be gone

See Julie Taymor's elating and moving version of "The Tempest" on the big screen -- while you can. (That's Taymor, left, with her star, Helen Mirren, in a Matt Sayles photo, right.)

It's been eliciting contradictory responses from reviewers -- some say it's too visual, others say it lacks a point of view -- often the sign that in a busy movie season, it's hard for overworked journalists to grasp the riches right in front of them. And without the right critical mass, movies like these tend to disappear.

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The film speaks beautifully for itself -- but Taymor does, too, on her film's behalf.

Take the exhilarating image of three buffoonish figures doing a drunken dance on a ridge to the words, "Freedom, high day! High day, freedom!" Taymor told me last week, "Where else can you do that better -- have men singing 'freedom, high day, high day, freedom'-- than on a cliff on a horizon?"

When I mentioned it was like a happy version of the Dance of Death in Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," she said, "Those kinds of images are archetypal...They're in our brain, of what is it that is freedom. Bergman's dance is a dance of death, but freedom is linked to death, isn't it? In the end, when Prospera says, 'Set me free' -- what is she talking about, after all?"

Taymor has a talent for bringing emotional vitality to bold concepts -- she weds a questing intellect to a seize-the-day temperament. "We had just finished doing the 'freedom high day' in a closer shot, and it was perfect timing. We were shooting on Hawaii in daylight, so we could never go overtime -- when the sun goes down, the sun goes down. I just looked over and said, 'Run, run, run, let's get it, let's get it' -- because you could see the sun going down over the horizon over the ocean. And they just went off. It was really wild."

The director cast a black actor, Djimon Hounsou, to lead that dance as the island native, Caliban."When we talked about Caliban, first we talked about the racial issues. He's brilliant talking about this part, because he sees Caliban as a man who had no idea of what slavery is or what enslavement was. It was his island and it was taken from him. And as a man from Benin, with an understanding of witchcraft, he went on and on about the power of female sorcerers in Benin."

She and Hounsou both recognized the real-world clout of magic. "If you live in a culture where black magic or sorcery exists, as I did, in Bali, for four years, you know that if people believe in something, it's true – I don't care what your skepticism is, what religion you're in."

And Hounsou had no problem following the commands of Helen Mirren's wizardly Prospera. "When I asked Djimon how he was going to feel about Helen, a small, older white woman, playing Prospera and controlling his Caliban with a staff, he said he understood that she had the magic, she had the power, and that her power was in the staff. Just look at all the kings and leaders in Africa, he told me, every one of them holds a staff. He's a very smart guy and he understands that a force like magic must be reckoned with if the culture believes in that force. It motivates people because it touches some inner psyche that has more power than their physical being. And I think Shakespeare knew about that. Women were burned at the stake for witchcraft. It's not ho ho ho, Harry Potter. It's something much more serious."

Photo of Djimon Hounsou by Fred Prouser

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