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Helen Mirren, left, as Prospera and Felicity Jones as Miranda confront Caliban (Djimon Hounsou) in Julie Taymor's film of William Shakespeare's The Tempest. ((Melinda Sue Gordon/Maple Pictures))

Back in the early 1600s, Will Shakespeare wrote a tune-filled, FX-heavy fantasy featuring a wizard, young lovers, fairies, monsters and a spectacular shipwreck. The Tempest is a proto-blockbuster if ever there was one, and I’m amazed that more movies haven’t been made of it.

Shakespeare's The Tempest is a proto-blockbuster if ever there was one, and I’m amazed that more movies haven’t been made of it.

There was a campy, low-budget treatment by Derek Jarman in 1979 and Peter Greenaway’s idiosyncratic spin, Prospero’s Books, in 1991. I suppose you could also count the 1950s sci-fi variation, Forbidden Planet, as well as Paul Mazursky’s 1980s update Tempest. But none of those pictures exploited the original play’s potential as popular entertainment.

That was why I had high hopes for Julie Taymor’s new film version. Taymor, a gifted director with one foot planted in the avant-garde and the other on Broadway (The Lion King, the forthcoming Spider-Man musical), isn’t shy about messing with a classic while also recapturing its basic appeal.

The messing in her Tempest comes mainly in the form of a sex change: Helen Mirren stars here as Shakespeare’s sorcerer hero Prospero, now a sorceress heroine named Prospera. It’s an inspired gambit, as are many of Taymor’s other touches. They include casting comedian Russell Brand as a Shakespearean buffoon and having Ben Whishaw play the sprite Ariel as a spiky-haired androgyne, à la Ziggie Stardust-era David Bowie.

Disappointingly, not all these gambles pay off – Brand proves a dud and Whishaw’s performance is all surface glitter – while Taymor seems to have grown timid at some point and reined in her imagination. Instead of a bold work to match her previous Shakespeare outing, Titus (1999), she gives us what is at best a middling effort reminiscent of her Frida Kalo biopic Frida (2002) and, at worst, a fatuous one like her Beatles fantasia Across the Universe (2007).

On the plus side, Taymor doesn’t shortchange the poetry in favour of concept, which was the chief fault of Baz Luhrmann’s pop culture-infused Romeo + Juliet. She’s mustered an army of veteran British actors who know their Shakespeare – Mirren, Alan Cumming, Alfred Molina, Tom Conti – as well as a couple of equally capable U.S. recruits, David Strathairn and Chris Cooper. (Not only is the all-American Cooper the most surprising face here, he’s also excellent as Prospera’s usurping brother Antonio, duke of Milan.)

Prospero/Prospera’s famous soliloquies are retained and the play’s ethereal songs are set to suitably dreamy electronica by Taymor’s artistic/domestic partner, Elliot Goldenthal. The composer switches to driving rock music for action sequences like the opening shipwreck, which brings Antonio, the king of Naples (Strathairn) and others to the enchanted island ruled over by the wronged Prospera.

Mirren, short of hair and fiery of eye, is such a naturally powerful presence as Shakespeare’s magician that any doubts about the gender swap are swiftly set aside. The actress has excelled as the tough but compassionate woman-in-charge going back to her days on TV’s Prime Suspect, and she’s in her element as Prospera, whose rightful anger is finally tempered by forgiveness. At the same time, she and Felicity Jones, as the innocent Miranda, bring a new mother-daughter dynamic to the story.

Taymor’s other daring choice is her interpretation of Caliban, played by Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond). As the island’s brutish original denizen, subjugated by Prospera, Hounsou isn’t the fishy monster suggested by the text, but a mud-caked, tattoo-scarred savage. At the time the play was written, Europeans were colonizing the Americas and Taymor underscores that by having Hounsou’s black Caliban remind us of a native inhabitant overpowered and enslaved by a white conqueror.

Unfortunately, Hounsou doesn’t tap into the rich pathos of his character, which would have made the parallel poignant. His scenes with the drunken butler Stephano (Molina) and whiny jester Trinculo (Brand) are the weakest part of the movie. Their comic relief is more like hard labour.

Molina’s moon-faced sot does at times conjure up the hammy spirit of the great Robert Newton, but he tries too hard. Brand, who is so amusing when he’s spoofing fey rock stars, appears at a loss here, poncing about aimlessly. Taymor doesn’t do them any favours by shooting their final chastisement like a goofy Benny Hill skit. (If there’s any doubt about how funny these roles can be in the right hands, one has only to look to Geraint Wyn Davies and Bruce Dow, who were hilarious in this year’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival production.)

Taymor is more successful in the scenes with the callow lovers – Jones’s pouty Miranda and lank-haired actor-singer Reeve Carney as Ferdinand, the king of Naples’s son. Carney, who is playing the web-slinger in Taymor’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, gets to sing a love ballad with melancholy lyrics lifted from another Shakespeare play, Twelfth Night. Among other things, it’s proof that Shakespeare was a great emo songwriter.

The film was shot in Hawaii and Taymor cannily uses its topography to create a protean island that at times looks arid and volcanic, and other times lush. Mark Friedberg’s production design might be described as futuristic Renaissance. Prospera has a cave laboratory with microscope and beakers that could belong in Forbidden Planet. Costume designer Sandy Powell gives her a fabulous magic cloak that resembles a flow of glittering lava, while the castaways wear courtly garb with anachronistic zippers.

There’s a whimsical sensibility in evidence throughout, but not a strong directorial vision. Taymor has made a movie that’s perfectly adequate as a young person’s introduction to The Tempest. But it’s one that promised so much more.

The Tempest opens in Toronto on Dec. 16 and Ottawa on Dec. 24.

Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBC News.