Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books

This review was written by Craig Clarke for a previous incarnation of Green Man Review.

Prospero’s Books, director Peter Greenaway’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is a perfect example of using the cinematic form to its fullest extent. Greenaway’s films are always very visually interesting, but here he has pulled out all the stops. It almost doesn’t matter what the story is. One’s visual centers are so stimulated, there’s little space in the brain left for following the story, anyway.

Shakespeare, presumably, based his play on a real shipwreck that happened to Sir George Somers on his way to Jamestown, VA, in 1609. He crashed off the coast of Bermuda, actually causing Bermuda to become a British colony. (Or at least that’s what they sayl in St. Georges, Bermuda, the city that bears his name.)

No such details are necessary, however, in Greenaway’s film. Simply know that Prospero (John Gielgud) and his daughter Miranda (Isabelle Pasco) are stranded on an island. Also in attendance are Ariel, a fairy that Prospero once saved from an evil spell cast by a witch, who is now more-or-less his slave in gratitude, and Caliban (Michael Clark), the child of that same witch and one of her demons. There is another ship on the island, but its crew doesn’t matter so much except that they are Prospero’s enemies, and the son of one of them, Ferdinand (Mark Rylance), falls in love with Miranda. Oh and, of course, there are all of Prospero’s books, an invention of Greenaway’s (Shakespeare mentions only one book), described in loving detail.

Having the fabulous Gielgud voice all of the roles is brilliant. Playing Prospero as a sort of surrogate Shakespeare, he writes the play — in elegant calligraphy — as we watch it unfold before us. Gielgud’s voice resonates with emotion and nuances that come from his 70+ years experience with the Bard.

The portrayals of Ariel and Caliban, in particular, are delights. Ariel is visually represented by four different boys of increasing ages but similar appearances. Seeing two or more of them on the screen at once was confusing at first but, eventually, I just surrendered myself to the experience. As the beast Caliban, dancer/choreographer Clark undulates and contorts his nude body into impossible tangles, yet somehow remains a beautifully pitiful figure.

Speaking of nudity, there is plenty of it on display here. All ages, sexes, shapes, and sizes. One becomes immune to its prurient effects and begins simply to appreciate the human form once again, in all its incarnations.

Greenaway lavishly employs layering. He will begin with a background and flash different illustrative images on top of this, leaving an edge of backing still visible. This is engrossing in a “don’t blink or you’ll miss it” manner. This is utilized particularly well in the description of the books. Every frame speaks volumes and I still notice new things with each successive viewing. The film is so like a novel (or a Firesign Theatre album, for that matter) that one returns again and again trying to decipher the full meaning.

Greenaway has done a masterful job of taking a very familiar story and making it into an entirely new experience. Like his other films (which include The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover and The Pillow Book), it is not for all tastes. Rarely does one like all Greenaway’s films, but one has to admit their artistry.

In this case, Greenaway has again teamed up with frequent associates Sacha Vierny and Michael Nyman. Vierny’s photography is lush and Nyman’s accompanying score is probably his most complete work, rivaling his complex treatment for The Piano. One almost wishes for a sequel of some sort! Yet, at the same time, we know it would suffer by merely existing. Lightning doesn’t strike twice, as they say.

(Miramax, 1991)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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