REVIEW: Prospero’s Books [1991]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 124 minutes | Release Date: August 30th, 1991 (UK)
Studio: Cine Electra Ltd. / Miramax
Director(s): Peter Greenaway
Writer(s): Peter Greenaway / William Shakespeare (play “The Tempest”)

“And yet I needs must curse”

I have a hard enough time with William Shakespeare when the characters onscreen are speaking his words with relevant visual cues to cut through the iambic pentameter and present the stories for my eyes. Don’t ask me to comprehend anything while reading his plays because my mind is constantly at a loss as to what the words mean. Laugh if you will or empathize with my similar plight to your own, but that’s my struggle with the Bard despite loving most of his works when delivered onstage or screen. Enter Peter Greenaway‘s adaptation of “The Tempest” called Prospero’s Books and I’m at a semi-complete loss. The visuals are there, the story is almost verbatim, and yet it’s near impossible to follow courtesy of how it’s presented.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read or understood “The Tempest” since being involved in a grade school performance of the play around age ten. Had I been more familiar with the story I surely would have enjoyed Greenaway’s film more due to being able to look past the convolution and awkward narration device towards its intrinsic context. Because I wasn’t, however, my mind kept drifting. Didn’t Ferdinand (Mark Rylance) drown in a beautifully choreographed underwater dance of twirls? How’s he back on solid ground to marry Miranda (Isabelle Pasco)? Who are the men in frills and why do we see so little of them? And Caliban (Michael Clark)—is he friend, foe, neither? Why do I care about his pied piper figurative dance leading two goofballs astray?

Well it does make sense. Prospero (John Gielgud), the deposed Duke of Milan sent into exile with his daughter Miranda twelve years prior to our entry into the tale has summoned the men who wronged him and separated them into groups to be enchanted into seeing what he desires rather than the truth. The men in frills are Prospero’s villainous brother Antonio (Tom Bell), Alonso the King of Naples (Michel Blanc), and Gonzalo (Erland Josephson) the King’s counselor who ensured Prospero had food, clothing, and his favorite books upon being cast away. Ferdinand does drown—in the eyes of his father Alonso. And Caliban is a slave, son of Sycorax whom I don’t remember being referenced at all. I’m still not sure of his island native’s purpose.

But I do know about those books. Yes, Greenaway didn’t title his epic production Prospero’s Books for no reason. They are the source of his intellect and therefore magic and we get to see all twenty-four of them close-up and in full animation. Think the director’s short film A Walk Through H and its myriad maps on the wall of seemingly gibberish if not for the detailed instructions and descriptions laid upon them by a narrator. Sometimes Prospero’s books have relevance to what’s going on and sometimes we see five in a row as though Greenaway is playing catch-up. The final two are a compilation of Shakespeare’s plays and “The Tempest” itself—albeit this time as written by Prospero. They’re the only books to have survived until today.

The whole film is written from Prospero’s perspective, an old man at his desk scribing it to paper in meticulous calligraphy. He therefore speaks every role—most times alone, often with a vocal modulator (deep and nefarious when playing Caliban for instance), and rarely atop the actors’ voices portraying the character themselves. This is where my comprehension failed because Prospero is speaking plot points while the visuals onscreen might be barely connected to the words. It doesn’t help that Greenaway also cuts into the intricately planned pans surveying massive sets (think The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover) with boxed vignettes of the books and other close-up shots similarly to the effect he used five years later with The Pillow Book. This thing is wildly complex.

And this is why I found the film utterly captivating and confounding. You must appreciate the effort put in from the sprawling cast of naked extras in different paint colors and wardrobe to the trio of Ariels (Prospero’s spite ward) spanning multiple ages to the sets of columns, mirrors, and water that go as far back as they do side-to-side. The logistics are impossible to fathom and yet the filmmaker pulls everything off without a hitch. There are also some brilliant bits of picture-in-picture wherein he has actors holding an ornate painting frame around the second image. But with so much going on and Gielgud’s Shakespearan language changing octaves and characters, it’s difficult to keep up. Part play, dance recital, and avant-garde curio, however, Prospero’s Books is one-of-a-kind.

Whether that truth has you enraptured or searching for the remote control to turn it off is up to you. I’m personally in the middle. Seeing it in context with the other Greenaway films mentioned above gives it artistic relevance to his evolution as an auteur and that alone makes it a crucial piece of cinematic history. The way it unabashedly creates a vision without regard to the ratings board or Shakespearean devotees makes it an important piece of artistic history in and of itself. But no matter its pedigree, technical prowess, or finally allowing Gielgud to fulfill his long-held dream of playing Prospero on the silver screen, you can’t ignore its many challenges. This isn’t a film you pop on for fun. But it’s a must-see nonetheless.

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