There have been a number of versions of The Tempest on screen before from Derek Jarmans moodily eccentric The Tempest (1979) to Paul Mazurskys modernised Tempest (1982), Peter Greenaways madcap work of arthouse surrealism Prosperos Books (1991) and the made for American tv The Tempest (1998), which updated the story into the American Civil War, not to mention Forbidden Planet (1956), which retold the story in science-fictional terms. Julie Taymors take is to give us a version that features a female Prospero in the form of Helen Mirren. Other than the casting of Helen Mirren which I am not sure necessarily adds any fascinatingly new interpretations to the original Julie Taymor otherwise keeps to the basics and gives a traditional telling of the play the way that Shakespeare wrote it with all the dialogue taken in toto.
One thing that Julie Taymor does give the play is to open it up visually. The Tempest is the most fantastic of William Shakespeares plays alongside A Midsummer Nights Dream (c1595) and Taymor gives us the most visually alive screen version yet. She is a director noted for the vibrance of the visuals she conjures both on stage and on the screen. Where film versions of The Tempest (and other Shakespearean works) tend to allow the camera to simply film a stage play enacted on sets and in costumes, Taymor makes the dialogue come to life dramatically. She employs an extravagant range of visual effects to give us scenes of Helen Mirren whipping up the storm to destroy the Milanese sailing ship, or of the ghostly Ariel flitting about, materialising out of trees. There is a particularly beautiful sequence where Ben Whishaws Ariel becomes a water sprite and follows the party along under the rivers and pools, while singing a hauntingly beautiful song. There are amazing visions the party of nobles being greeted by the vision of a path of magical steps leading to a laden banquet table in glowing lights, before Ariel appears as a hermaphoritic black crow being and wields a storm cloud of birds against them; or his appearance as a horde of flaming dogs to pursue them. Taymor even sweeps Miranda and Ferdinand up into a cosmological vision of star charts and astrological symbols.
One of the more interesting things is how, having set the film up, Julie Taymor otherwise leaves the island a bare landscape (shot around the volcanic islands of Hawaii). This leads to a film that is visually extravagant but equally seems to take place almost entirely out of doors apart from Prosperas courtyard near the end. Even Prosperas wardrobe of costumes is peculiarly located out of doors. The staging of some scenes is also downright peculiar like one where Djimon Hounsous Caliban is fooling around with Russell Brands Trinculo, which ends with both of them hiding under a blanket in the midst of an otherwise barren plain.
One thing that must be commended hugely in Julie Taymors favour is that she opens the dialogue up. Watching Shakespeare film adaptations, unless you have memorised or are closely familiar with the text, you often need a set of primer notes to interpret and follow what is being said. Rather than people coming on and delivering dialogue by memorised rote as you usually get, Taymor has her actors deliver it as though it were everyday dialogue, which certainly makes the play easier to follow.