As if it were not disappointing enough to produce an intellectually undernourished version of Shakespeare’s late romance, helmer Julie Taymor has gone one better by crafting a “Tempest” so kitschy, yet curiously drab and banal, that even supporters may hope she’ll break her staff and drown her book. With a tony cast led by Helen Mirren in the gender-bent lead role, the Touchstone release, skedded to bow in December, could find a niche among older auds and those who can’t be bothered to read the play.

Shakespeare’s 400-year-old text of “The Tempest,” arguably the last written solely by him, centers on Prospero, a scholarly nobleman genius with magical, alchemical powers who’s been banished from his rightful realm to a nearly deserted island. The many specifically theatrical references threaded throughout suggest Shakespeare intended it as his own swan song, making Prospero his mouthpiece as he bids farewell at the end to a quasi-artistic career. (Throughout the play, Prospero manipulates the other characters, very much the writer-helmer of the proceedings, with assistance from spirit sidekick Ariel.)

It’s therefore no surprise that such maverick filmmakers as Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway have been drawn to the material, using it as a prism to refract their own interests. Despite the liberties taken with the material, other directors have at least engaged with the teeming fertility of the play, a text so layered and crystalline with ambiguity it can be reinterpreted in multiple contradictory ways every generation. For example, 19th century interpretations saw in “The Tempest” an allegory of strict but benevolent colonialism; since the 1970s, both legit and film talents, inspired by academic readings, have preferred to read against the grain of the text, finding in the enslaved Caliban a tragic figure, victimized by Prospero’s imperialist ambitions and robbed of his own language like many conquered indigenous people around the globe.

There’s a bit of that post-colonialist spin here in Taymor’s version, but it’s a poor, bare, fork’d thing. As Caliban, Benin-born Djimon Hounsou plays up his native African accent and moves with the squatting theatrical menace of a shaman conjuror, but Taymor’s direction doesn’t free the character from the comedy shackles Shakespeare imprisoned him in originally.

The helmer’s casting of Mirren in the lead role necessitates renaming the character Prospera and inserting some blank verse to explain she was the rightful ruler of Milan after her husband’s death, later banished with daughter Miranda (played adequately as an adult by Felicity Jones) by her treacherous brother, Antonio (Chris Cooper).

The sexual reassignment, while thought-provoking, plays like a gimmick. It doesn’t help that Mirren, usually so good, appears to be on autopilot, including her reading of the famous “Our revels now are ended…” soliloquy. The charged father-daughter dynamic is made completely nonsensical by the recasting; with this one change, Taymor takes more away than she can replace.

The wooden Reeve Carney (as Ferdinand) and stunt-cast Russell Brand (as clown Trin-culo) aside, the ensemble should have repped a strong lineup, but no one gets much of a chance to blossom. Ben Wishaw’s Ariel, compellingly androgynous despite the silly Aladdin Sane haircut, comes close, but his sequences are hobbled by the pic’s cheesy CGI. Per the press notes, all Wishaw’s scenes were shot in a studio using greenscreen, which would be fine had the visual effects team done a better job of matching his eyeline with Mirren’s.

Elsewhere, the Alonso-Sebastian-Antonio-Gonzalo quartet (played by David Strathairn, Alan Cumming, Cooper and Tom Conti), who wander around the island plotting against each other and chattering, hold up their end of the drama sturdily, but it’s not enough.

Lenser Stuart Dryburgh, whose work with Jane Campion in particular has been so outstanding, lights the locations dingily. A drab, limited palette is deployed to no great effect, hampering the efforts of costume designer Sandy Powell, whose outfits, made almost entirely from sewn-together zippers, nevertheless add a contempo edge, imaginatively reworking a recent trend in high fashion deployed by Balmain, among others.

The Tempest

  • Production: A Touchstone Pictures release of a Chartoff/Hendee Prods., TalkStory Prods. production. (International sales: Icalon Entertainment Intl., London.) Produced by Julie Taymor, Robert Chartoff, Lynn Hendee, Julia Taylor-Stanley, Jason K. Lau. Executive producers, John C. Ching, Deborah Lau, Ron Bozman, Tino Puri, Rohit Khattar, Stewart Till, Anthony Buckner, Greg Strasburg. Co-producer, Nalini Lalvani. Co-Executive producer, Beaux Carson. Directed, written by Julie Taymor, based on the play by William Shakespeare.
  • Crew: Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen), Stuart Dryburgh; editor, Francoise Bonnot; music, Elliot Goldenthal; production designer, Mark Friedberg; art directors, Alex DiGerlando, Kim Jennings; set decorator, Alyssa Winter; costume designer, Sandy Powell; sound (Dolby Digital), Drew Kunin; sound designer, supervising sound editor, Blake Leyh; re-recording mixers, Lee Dichter, Andy Kris; special effects supervisor, Steve Kirshoff; visual effects supervisor, Kyle Cooper; visual effects, Prologue Films; stunt coordinators, Charlie Croughwell, Stephen Pope; associate producer, Phyllis LaVoie; assistant director, Sean Cameron Guest; second unit camera, Dana W. Gonzales; casting, Gillian Hawser. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (out of competition, closer), Sept. 11, 2010. (Also in New York Film Festival - Centerpiece.) Running time: 109 MIN.
  • With: Prospera - Helen Mirren Miranda - Felicity Jones Caliban - Djimon Hounsou Ariel - Ben Wishaw Ferdinand - Reeve Carney Alonso - David Strathairn Sebastian - Alan Cumming Antonio - Chris Cooper Gonzalo - Tom Conti Stephano - Alfred Molina Trinculo - Russell Brand