The Tempest, though late in his life and career, is not one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, but writer/director Julie Taymor does much to turn it into one. Indeed, at the end of her visually and thematically rambling (the former being far more worth the trouble than the latter) adaptation, we are left simply wondering as to the point.

Is it the story of how the craving for power corrupts the human soul? Is it a fanciful tale of magical spirits, mighty spells, and a mysterious island? Is it about young love at first sight or the realization of imminent mortality for its aged sorcerer hero (made a heroine here)?

The beauty of Shakespeare is that The Tempest is all of these things and more set within a straightforward comedy (in the classical sense, in that it all works out for everyone in the end), and the trouble with Taymor’s version is that, in trying so hard to force a sense of import, the movie misses the actual significance that is already there. It’s a tunnel-vision hunt for subtext (that elusive meaning that only exists in the reader’s mind) in a text rich enough on its own.

There is, for example, no obvious reason to turn Prospero into Prospera (Helen Mirren) and occasionally mess with the meter (“Father” and “mother” contain the same amount of syllables, but “duke” and “duchess” are a wholly different matter). It changes the dynamic between the deposed duchess and her daughter, Miranda (Felicity Jones), who has been isolated with her mother on a secluded island for these 12 years. Happy accident, too, that Mirren, somehow regal and angry and despairing at once, gives her sense of justice honesty, her rages to nature real bite, and her contemplations of the fleetingness of life genuine regret.

The eclectic cast is its dilemma. So while Mirren plays Prospera her way, we also have a wide-ranging list of supporting players working their own ways and, typically, with less-than-effective results.

Jones and Reeve Carney as Prince Ferdinand, stranded with his father the King and some of his court, are a bore as the young lovers, who never saw the beauty of the other anywhere else. She has a good excuse, since she’s never seen any man other than Caliban (Djimon Hounsou), who is, in Shakespeare’s dramatis personae, “a salvage and deformed slave.” Taymor takes “salvage” in the concept of, perhaps, a salvage yard, where chunks of his flesh are albino white, one eye is blue, and a lot of the rest is covered in scales. Hounsou, for his part, is working at the same level as Mirren but in terms of physicality, shifting in almost the body language of a dancer from fear to rebellion to drunk on liquor — a threat to the demanding Prospera but not one to take too seriously. Her other servant is Ariel (Ben Whishaw), a nude, androgynous sprite, who speeds to and fro, causing trouble hither and thither.

The rest of the cast consists of those stranded on the island by a storm Prospera conjures to bring her brother Antonio (a struggling Chris Cooper) to her to avenge his usurping of her title. Antonio, the king Alonso (David Strathairn), and the kindly, old advisor Gonzalo (Tom Conti) are bland, although they are accompanied by Alan Cumming as Sebastian, the sardonic brother of the King, who tries to tempt Antonio with more power, if only he helps Sebastian take the throne by force. Cumming is a wily sort of comic presence, while Alfred Molina and Russell Brand play the broad comedy as two drunken servants who make a power play against Prospera with the aid of Caliban.

The opening storm is a staple of innovative staging practices, and Taymor sits right in the middle of it with the crew of the ship until a shot of Prospera on the shore shows its true origin and intent. Taymor accomplishes a lot of fine trickery throughout with her ecstatic flair for exaggerated visuals. Superimposition (Ariel’s face becomes part of the water, the land, the trees), some computer effects (a set of unfortunate fiery hounds is awkward), and imaginative makeup (Caliban is quite the accomplishment) envision the indefinite line between the natural and the supernatural so central to the text, and the island itself, ranging in topography from lush forest to barren desert, makes a puzzling backdrop.

Yet, while I hate to use such a simple and overused question, I must ask the eternal one: What does it all mean? Taymor’s The Tempest, as visually inspired as it may be, is undecided.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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