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.'
The performances themselves are a mixed bag. While Mirren, the court (Alan Cumming, Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, Tom Conti) and Felicity Jones (Miranda) put in admirable performances that are both accessible to those who haven't read the play and worthy of the text, others are uneven at best. Reeve Carney's limp performance as Ferdinand, the prince whom Miranda falls in love with, is especially obvious when put up against Jones, who plays Miranda with a wide-eyed, barefoot wildness. And the less said about Russel Brand (Trinculo), Alfred Molina (Stephano) and Djimon Hounsou (Caliban), the better.
Her version of 'Titus,' which clocked in at 162 minutes, offers a more successful and satisfying tweak to Shakespeare, with modern, surreal touches like when Saturninus (Cumming) revs up in a Pope-mobile attended by men on motorcycles to rock guitar. The cast and their performances are also stronger. While 'The Tempest' is a romance and a comedy and 'Titus' is a brutally violent drama, the latter is somehow far more cohesive. The experimental special effects of 'The Tempest' are pretty but take away from the final product. Equally experimental visions in 'Titus,' are far more effective. One such scene from 'Titus' that I can't get out of my head is when Marcus (Colm Feore) finds Lavinia (Laura Fraser) standing on a tree trunk in her shift, her hands replaced by tree branches and her tongue cut out by her rapists. This vision is a play on the text itself ("what stern ungentle hands / Have lopp'd and hew'd and made thy body bare / Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments"), and few scenes in 'The Tempest' play with the text and images and resonate in the same way.
While I'm not a Taymor die-hard, I feel I have to somehow protect it from the considerable criticism -- not all of it unfounded -- that it's drawing. Taymor makes some very risky decisions, and sometimes these result in brave new worlds. But only sometimes.