There are so many ways to stage The Tempest. Shakespeare's last and strangest play can be a meditation on aging, an exploration of S&M power dynamics, a critique of Western imperialism. Julie Taymor's film mostly plays it straight — despite casting Helen Mirren as the magician Prospero. Mirren's Prospera is fierce and creepy and bitter, as she should be. But the film left me feeling unsatisfied. Maybe the magic wasn't magical enough, or the performances lacked warmth. Or perhaps those are two ways of saying the same thing.
Magic first: The Tempest is full of spirits and the uncanny. In theatrical productions, the challenge is to create that otherworldliness using the tools of the stage: masks, puppets, scrims. Taymor is a past master of those tools. Her production of The Lion King is only one example, and Bostonians may remember her incandescent King Stag at the ART back in 1984.
But here, she has the CGI toy box to play with, and the results are lackluster. The kaleidoscopic special effects are plainly meant to be spectacular, but they're familiar from music videos and Target commercials. Occasionally they work, as when Ariel — a nude, Bowie-esque Ben Whishaw — flickers from place to place like a skipping CD. But too often, they're just boring.
In Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, a priest drinks a cup of hot chocolate and then levitates. García Márquez has said it's the specific, mundane detail of the chocolate that makes the levitation believable. In The Tempest, that level of detail is missing, especially in the characters' emotions.
Taymor knows enough to film Mirren's face "as if it were one of the world's great landscapes," to steal a line from former Phoenix writer Stephanie Zacharek. It's a pleasure to watch the shadows move across that magnificent terrain. But the other actors are often wooden, reciting their lines rather than speaking them. Alfred Molina and Russell Brand are good as the comic relief of Stephano and Trinculo, but David Strathairn as Alonso and Reeve Carney as Ferdinand are allotted only one facial expression apiece. What's more, the characters rarely touch each other (why give Mirren a hot rent boy and not let her molest him?), and that makes the film seem a little repressed, as if this were a Midwestern farming family at an awkward reunion.
I'm not going to go into the decision to cast Djimon Hounsou — the film's only black actor — as Caliban, the savage native. If it was intended as a critique of racism or colonialism, it doesn't work.
The movie is full of missed opportunities. The moment when Ariel asks whether Prospera loves him should be exquisitely tense but instead passes unremarked. The mother-daughter relationship between Prospera and Felicity Jones's Miranda isn't explored. The worst omission, though, is Taymor's decision to cut Prospera's final speech, which appears instead as a song over the final credits. Prospera is a control-freak artist, a grudge holder and a slaveholder — yet by the end of the play she abjures her art, forgives her enemies, and frees her slaves. Taymor doesn't let us see how that change comes about; the moment of utter surrender in the final speech is lost.