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Stylish new films to see this holiday season: 'The Tempest'

December 16, 2010 |  2:49 pm

In Julie Taymor’s version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” the lead character Prospero has been transformed into a woman, Prospera (Helen Mirren), a queen who is banished to a deserted island with her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones), where she uses her sorceress’ powers to shipwreck the members of court who sent her there, and seek vengeance against them.

The story is a mix of magic, romance and redemption. And this being Shakespeare, there is also lots of mischief, thanks to marauding merrymakers Trinculo (Russell Brand) and Stephano (Alfred Molina).   

Taymor charged Sandy Powell with designing the costumes, which are extraordinary. Many of them look as if they could have emanated from the landscape (the film was shot on the craggy island of Lanai). I talked to Powell recently about her imaginative work on the film.

The glimmering cloak worn by Prospera in the opening shot was incredible looking. How did you make it?

That was described in Julie’s script as shards of glass and light. So it was quite a challenge to make. We even thought about using fiber optics but decided against it because we were shooting a lot in the daylight.  We decided to draw on the idea of volcanic rock and lava flow. We wanted her to look as if she came out of the rock. So we had a basic cloak shape made of mesh onto which we sewed over 3,000 shard-like things to look like jagged crystal.

They were actually very lightweight plastic pieces in about a dozen sizes and shapes, sewn on irregularly and painted diferently so that they would look iridescent. It took forever and once it was all done, we realized the thing didn’t fold up. It was this massive piece of sculpture that had to be transported from London in a giant, coffin-like custom box.

Tell me about the blue tunic she wears during the bulk of the film.

It’s indigo-dyed cotton and linen. Julie’s brief for Prospera as a whole was that she wanted her to be female but to look androgynous. The tunic was supposed to look like something she could have made for herself using things from the island. In terms of construction, we looked at the work of a lot of Japanese fashion designers, including Comme de Garcons, Junya Watanabe and Yohji Yamamoto, and experimented with texture.

Miranda Miranda dresses a bit like a tomboy. But that corset she wears with the handpainted face on the front is quite beautiful.

That was a piece I borrowed from a designer friend. I thought it looked like it could have been from some old painting that washed up on the shore.

And Trinculo is more of a dandy. He looked like he could have walked off Carnaby Street.

Yes, dandy-cum-clown with all the color and stripes. I have to say I was inspired by Russell himself, because you can’t ignore the way he is and his shape, and I assume that’s why he was cast.

The men of the court were very cool, almost punk rock in their leathers and zippers.

Kind of, yes. The basic silhouette of their doublets was Elizabethan Jacobian, and their jodhpurs were more contemporary. The film is not meant to take place in any time period, but rather to be timeless. But the brief for the court was 17th century Spanish. So I did look at period costumes and then introduce contemporary elements. The zippers I used like decorative braids or gold bullion would have been used on costumes in court.

What was the biggest challenge in this project?

We had just six weeks from when we started researching until we actually went to Hawaii. And once I was there, I had to carry on making costumes. I didn’t see the actors until a week before we started shooting. And the court costumes were quite complicated. Many of the zippers had to be sewn on the leather pieces before they were sewn together. They were difficult to alter and they weighed a ton. (35 pounds each to be exact.)

-- Booth Moore

Photos, top to bottom: Helen Mirren; Russell Brand (left) and Alfred Molina; Helen Mirren; Felicity Jones; Chris Cooper (left) and Alan Cumming in Julie Taymor's "The Tempest." Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Tempest Production.