Julie Taymor has earned a reputation as a tirelessly experimental director of both theatrical and cinematic projects. So what does it say that the most radical choice she makes in her adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest ends up barely mattering at all? The film’s Prospero, long a role played by actors able to summon the power of a patriarch in autumn, has become Prospera and is embodied by Helen Mirren. That gender reversal suggests far more possibilities than Taymor seems interested in exploring, unless the point was simply to cast Mirren in the part and ignore gender altogether. That isn’t a bad idea. She’s a remarkable actress and makes for a fine Prospera, at once flinty and determined but with a pulsing parental tenderness she makes evident in lines that lesser actors might throw away.
Ultimately, Mirren makes recasting Prospero as a woman seem like not that radical a notion, but neither are any of the choices Taymor makes here. Which is surprising given both her record and the readiness with which The Tempest lends itself to outré ideas, with its monsters, sprites, and magic. What’s more, it needs a little goosing to make it as a film. A treasure box of setpieces, The Tempest doesn’t offer much in the way of forward momentum. If every scene doesn’t dazzle, it can start to feel like a drag.
Not every scene dazzles. In fact, Taymor seems to have assembled an interesting cast and colorful costumes and chosen a fitting locale—some scenic, forbidding corners of Hawaii—and hoped for the best. Occasionally she gets it. Playing Caliban with a West Indian accent and a patch of white skin that places the emphasis on the play’s colonial themes, Djimon Hounsou is effective in his tense exchanges with Mirren, less so when thrown in with the comic relief played by Alfred Molina and Russell Brand (who doesn’t stray too far from his familiar persona). And while the proudly artificial CGI effects Taymor favors are probably the contemporary equivalent of some of the gaudier theatrical pageantry of the Elizabethan stage, that doesn’t make the way Ben Whishaw’s Ariel flits and glows any less of an eyesore. But the best thing about Taymor’s Tempest is also the worst: It’s not stunning but it is sturdy, a handsome-enough showcase of a film that never really comes to life. It plays like a challenge politely declined.