51. Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books [The Tempest] (1991)
Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books is the most visionary adaptation of Shakespeare that I have ever seen, and that declaration is made with all due consideration to Julie Taymor’s amazing film of Titus Andronicus. Prospero’s Books may be the most underrated film of all time. And yet your rogue has taken more than a year to get to this gem in this blog, in part because of the demands that the film makes upon the viewer. The Tempest is such a strange play—any straightforward adaptation must fail because of how sublime Shakespeare’s conception was in his final outing as a solo playwright.
Peter Greenaway understands that the storm in this play is a metaphor for the psyche of a wise old man approaching the end of his life. This Prospero’s story may be happening entirely in his own mind. Either that, or this is a metaphysical projection of one man’s mind onto the temporal world. Greenaway has meticulously committed to this aesthetic, and if I try to think of another director who comes close to making the psychological most of the fantastic, for the strange revelation of character, I would have to come up with the example of Jean Cocteau.
After Prospero has enacted the tempest, the credits sequence features a grand processional through this mage’s palace. There are a pair of naked women dancing mechanically, spastically, like they are demonically possessed. Michael Nyman’s lush, chromatic score is stirring, punctuated with the clanging one might associate with a factory, a blacksmith’s, or industrial music. There is such abundant imagery here, such abundant sonic provocations, with Prospero at the surrealistic heart of it all.
Peter Greenaway has framed the scenes with his own imaginative explanations of the pages of the magical tomes that Prospero has owned (and written) over time. I presume that this extra-textual aspect of the adaptation is the reason why the film has a different name than the play, although this also indicates that Greenaway saw the themes of the play in a different way than The Tempest might ordinarily indicate.
Prospero lives not so much on an island, but in the mansion of his book, and this mansion is like a disordered Eden, teeming with nakedness and social transgressions and mischief, but not sex or violence. It is a dream-state that fully suggests the sublimity of The Tempest, exceeding the grasp of anything like human understanding.
The film is a little like watching a weather documentary while suffering a fever dream. Greenaway has set the cultural world of this Tempest as that of Italy (the plot involves Milanese politics) with ruffs the size of Ferris wheels fringing men’s heads. This culture is confronted by the Edenic innocence and non-erotic nudity of the island.
The staggering strength of this film is one reason why it might take me this long to reveal that Prospero is played by John Gielgud, who would have been about 86 at the time of filming. This is his best performance of Shakespeare on film. Gielgud was a traditional Shakespearean actor of his time, whose emphasis was on his voice as an instrument, and whose chief decisions as an actor would have been about where to stand, and (obviously) understanding one’s lines. He generally made such a process work, but in this film, his advanced age shows that he never stopped getting better.
If this is your first Tempest, you may feel quite lost. The cinematography, special effects, and complex editing can be quite puzzling. But the work is joyously masterful, and the fantastical elements of this play have never been better envisioned. If you watch this as your not-first Tempest, I challenge you not to love it.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.