With more visual stimulation than a dozen normal films, Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books is an intellectually and erotically rampaging meditation on the arrogance and value of the artistic process. The product of a feverish, overflowing imagination, this almost impossibly dense take on The Tempest displays both the director’s audacious brilliance and lewd extravagance at full tilt.
The playwright’s tale is presented basically intact, but Greenaway’s underlying gambit is to make Prospero (John Gielgud) the author of his own story. Through the use of exquisite calligraphy, the old man’s writing is made vivid on the screen, and the device opens the way to Gielgud himself to supply the voices for many of the supporting characters, who are sometimes also voiced by Gielgud and another thesp simultaneously.
Shot entirely indoors in Amsterdam, the production is stunning from every physical point of view. As always, Michael Nyman’s vaulting, repetitive, lyrical score plays a major part in the effectiveness of a Greenaway film. Greenaway here ventures into new cinematic territory through the use of high-definition video (which accounts for the unusual 1.77:1 aspect ratio) and the Quantel Paintbox.