As a film director, Julie Taymor is a divisive figure. If you love her, you must be prepared to defend her over-the-top, theatrical flourishes; her musical numbers; and her utter defiance when it comes to staying within prescribed film conventions.
That doesn't mean they add up to a fully formed film, however, and such is the case with 'The Tempest,' starring Helen Mirren as Prospera instead of Prospero the magician. 'The Tempest' is gorgeous; the primary setting of Lana'i in Hawaii affords an amazing array of natural sets, from volcanic rock to red dust ravines to twisty forests. The delicious costumes that Oscar-winner Sandy Powell is known for take their cues from these natural wonders; Prospera's magical cape is bedecked in glittering volcanic shards, for instance.
However, 'The Tempest,' more often than not, fumbles. Ariel, who is playing by Ben Whishaw covered in white makeup, is almost entirely computer generated; sometimes this works wonderfully, but when the spirit is transformed into, say, frogs to torment some of Prospera's enemies, or when Ariel sings Full Fathom Five, it was hard to keep a straight face. Mirren puts in a pitch-perfect Shakespearean performance, and changing the character does lend a somewhat different subtext to every exchange. This is most dramatic in the mother-daughter relationship between Prospera and Miranda, and Prospera's chemistry with Ariel, which is sometimes tinted with romance and tenderness.
However appealing the idea of seeing Mirren do a subversive Shakespeare might be, it lacks a certain zing that makes it necessary. I expected it to be more charged, more experimental, more than either just a happenstance of Taymor and Mirren wanting to work together or more than a parlor trick. While Taymor said in a Q&A afterwards that the scene of Prospera trading in her island clothes for her Milan court garb -- when she is tightly corseted and says, "Every third thought shall be my grave." -- that it's supposed to represent a mother's sacrifice for her daughter, it doesn't read that way at all. Some of the text naturally had to be changed to address a woman, and some back story is added, but otherwise this is a fairly straight reading of 'The Tempest.'