Julie Taymor's new film version of The Tempest isn't as disastrous as it could have been, though it does fundamentally fail Shakespeare's play. The tale concerns the wizard Prospero's decision to leave a remote island in order to resume his role as the Duke of Milan—and, in the process, give up his magic powers. Prospero possesses a particularly male quality of imperious tediousness, speaking far more than the other characters in his scenes and often lecturing them with stories they've already heard. To give up his magic is also to abandon his power over them, including his own daughter, Miranda; he waves his staff practically as a phallic symbol, and the choice to disempower himself is among the most touchingly self-humbling that a Shakespeare character makes.
Here, Helen Mirren plays the wizard, now changed to Prospera. The decision to cast a woman in the part changes many of the dynamics between Prosper and others (a father-daughter relationship versus a mother-daughter one, for example). Yet it's not an implicitly wrong choice. In fact, the sight of a woman acting as powerful as the most powerful man before relinquishing herself could have been quite moving.
Judie Dench might have been remarkable, but Mirren isn't, because she plays Prospera as though having already given her power away. Mirren, like Laurence Olivier, tends to give performances while simultaneously commenting on them; her Oscar-winning part in The Queen was a piece of careful construction in which she showed you every brick. Here she tends, with wide, open eyes and a vulnerable voice, to stress Prospero's fear and uncertainty, loading meaning into the way she delivers her lines rather than into the lines themselves. This contrasts with John Gielgud's great performance as Prospero in Peter Greenaway's Tempest adaptation, Prospero's Books. Gielgud derives meaning primarily from the words themselves, which are good enough on their own to show Prospero crumbling. When Mirren tries to lay a sense of psychological torment onto Prospero's later speeches, she's making a less interesting choice than simply speaking the lines.
Several of the other actors also give mistaken performances, whether because they're overwrought and incomprehensible (Djimon Hounsou, Russell Brand), miscast (Chris Cooper), or simply wasted (Alan Cumming); in small roles, Alfred Molina, David Strathairn, and Tom Conti escape with dignity. Taymor directs her actors away from the play, whether through encouraging them to hit themselves while speaking important lines or by cutting to their feet. You keep questioning why aesthetic choices are being made, why that close-up or that edit, and meanwhile note how Taymor tends to ride the emotion of a scene for its duration, rather than find nuance within it. This worked in her previous Shakespeare film, Titus, by creating an unbearable spectacle of mounting violence, but flops for a piece whose power comes from noting subtle character shifts. Since actors are so busy laughing and shouting the jokes, the comedy in particular suffers.
Taymor's brutal literalism is a shame, since the play is stunning. In particular, Prospero's line about his powers ending, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on/And our little life is rounded with a sleep," is among the most beautiful Shakespeare wrote, perhaps Prospero is accepting how his time onstage will end too. Taymor has said that The Tempest is one of Shakespeare's visually richest plays. This is true, but literalizing Prospero's magic powers as she does with loud thundercracks and big, malevolent black birds proves dangerous—in contrast to both Greenaway and Derek Jarman's film versions of the play, which mainly suggest magic rather than show it. The play was likely Shakespeare's last, and a testament to the power of theater; it is also, among other things, a thank you to his audience for loaning him its imagination. It ends with Prospero asking for it once more. "Now I want/Spirits to enforce, art to enchant," he says, but also requests to "Let your indulgence set me free." In a sense, the audience takes Prospero's place. Their eagerness summons a play's world into being, and only they can let it go.
Taymor cuts this last speech, though, and simply ends the film with Prospera breaking her staff. Shakespeare's character asks the audience to free him; Taymor's frees herself. The difference proves a metaphor for the entire enterprise, which is stuffed so full of the director's imagination that it doesn't need ours.