No one can accuse visionary director Julie Taymor of lacking ambition. Her strained take on Shakespeare's purported last play, The Tempest, starts by giving Prospero a sex change. The banished wizard eager to be reinstated as the Duke of Milan is now Prospera and played by the great Helen Mirren. The feminist angle works on a cerebral level, but never moves persuasively to the heart.
In an effort to (over)compensate, Taymor pours on the special effects. But the thunder and lightning are computer generated. The human touch Taymor brought to her stage production of The Lion King and her impressive 1999 film of the Bard's Titus Andronicus is curiously in absentia. The acting is — how to put it? — all over the place. Ben Whishaw's Ariel scores; Djimon Hounsou's heavy-tongued Caliban does not. Russell Brand gets laughs — the wrong kind — as Trinculo and Ferdinand never comes fully to life in the interpretation of Reeve Carney, who plays the title role in Taymor's Broadway musical version of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. I found myself wishing that Taymor would turn off the sound and fury and let The Tempest speak for itself. My wish wasn't granted.