Prospero's Books

This is the place to talk about films from around the world.

Prospero's Books

Postby howardschumann(d) » Mon May 01, 2006 2:42 pm


Directed by Peter Greenaway (1991)

"The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance" - Prospero, The Tempest, Act 5, Scene I

Peter Greenaway's audacious 1991 film Prospero's Books is the stuff that dreams are made of. The film, loosely based on William Shakespeare's mystery play, The Tempest, does not present the work using conventional staging but suggests it through dreamlike ballet sequences with writhing nude dancers, computer animation, lush photography, surreal imagery and the evocative music of Michael Nyman. Images are opened in boxed inserts in the center of the frame and are visually striking, but the film, while imaginative and entertaining, is obscure and almost unintelligible to those unfamiliar with the plot. John Gielgud, still magnificent in his eighties, is Prospero, the philosopher-king. He is the voice of all the other characters as well as Prospero including the witches' son, Caliban (dancer Michael Clark), the King's son Ferdinand (Mark Rylance), and Prospero's fifteen-year old daughter Miranda (Isabelle Pasco) and, in his clearly articulated poetic voice, Gielgud allows Shakespeare's language to soar.

The film begins in a palace on the island where Prospero and Miranda landed twelve years ago after being exiled by the King of Naples. Prospero relates his strange story to his daughter (the word strange appears twenty-five times in the play), recounting the tempest that brought him to the island and the time when his brother Antonio conspired with King Alonso to usurp his position as the Duke of Milan. With the help of Gonzalo, Prospero was able to reach the island after a shipwreck with the twenty-four books that are the source of his magic and power (a Greenaway invention), and the film's title and structure are based on these. The arcane books, shown in overlapping images, include "A Book of Water" containing drawings of every conceivable watery association, "A Book of Mirrors", allowing the reader to peer into the past and the future, and "A Book of Mythologies" describing tales of Gods and men throughout the ages.

Prospero uses the occult power derived from his books to release the fairy Ariel from the pine tree in which he was buried alive by the witch Sycorax, and Ariel agrees to become his servant until he is freed by Prospero from slavery. Ariel, visually represented by four different boys, helps Prospero through magic to bring the men to the island that he has harbored a grievance against for twelve long years: King Alonso, his brother Sebastian and son Ferdinand, and his own villainous brother Antonio. The play is Prospero/Shakespeare's poetic inspiration that arises like a storm at sea, then returns to calm waters freed from treachery. The eternal author concerned with his literary legacy, he seeks closure as he gathers his enemies to wound and to heal. Prospero seeks revenge but, through his studies, is able to transform himself and bring his former adversaries to a new way of thinking and living and, in the process, provide for his daughter's future and his own reconciliation to society.

The Tempest was placed first in the Folio of Shakespeare's Collected works (1623) for a simple reason - it contains the unifying principles of the entire canon. Like the Greek Mysteries that preserved the ancient teachings under the veil of symbol and allegory, The Tempest is Shakespeare's ritual descent into the underworld. With its theme of banishment and redemption, Prospero/Shakespeare is the literary champion of the occult Neoplatonists, a magus transformed from a warrior prince to a seer, the personification of the idea that the cosmos is the self-expression of the soul. According to author Charles Beauclerk, Earl of Burford, The Tempest is the work of an author alienated from the mainstream, "tongue-tied by authority", who creates a second, artistic kingdom to challenge the status quo. It leads its audience "through a maze towards the center of the island where they will find both the true author and their own soul-life". Allowing us to realize a greater sense of wholeness, it is in Beauclerk's phrase, "the holy book of modern Western culture". Prospero's Books helps to reveal its sacred message.


Re: Prospero's Books

Postby A » Sat May 20, 2006 11:43 pm

Again a fine review from you, Howard.
I haven't seen the film myself, but have read a bit about it. So far everybody seemed only interested in mentioning Greenaway's technique (primarily the "boxes") without saying much else. In the end this was either used to praise the film, or to dismisse it. Very shortsighted, I should say.
I would like to know where you publish you reviews, as I've forgotten the adress.
Anyways, keep 'em coming.

Re: Prospero's Books

Postby howardschumann(d) » Sun May 21, 2006 12:16 am

Thanks for your comments. This is the first time I had seen the play The Tempest in any form so I took the opportunity to comment on the play as well as the film. I hope you will forgive my indulgences.

The websites that normally publish my reviews are:

Re: Prospero's Books

Postby A » Sun May 21, 2006 12:30 am

Thanks for the links.
In fact your "indulgent" part of the review was for me the most interesting, as I didn't know many of the things you mention.

Re: Prospero's Books

Postby hengcs » Mon May 22, 2006 12:55 am

When I was in United States, I watched it.
However, a lot of scenes were very "dark" (i.e., lighting) such that I could not gather much ...
If I ever have a chance, I guess I will watch it again ...

PS: Hi Howard, if you are ok with it, I will include the two links in the "Do We Click?" (i.e., Link Page)

Re: Prospero's Books

Postby howardschumann(d) » Mon May 22, 2006 1:18 am

Sure that's fine. I'm flattered.

Re: Prospero's Books

Postby Anasazie » Mon May 22, 2006 5:49 am

@ A.

Your comments on everybody only referring to Greenaway's techniques are true, the reason for this is that his work tends to be very superficial, too intellectual and quite bombastic. The technique is all there is, which is fine for some people, but i prefer work that's a bit more interactive, work that has a deeper soul, something to feel, rather than something to tell. I don't find that in most Greenaway. I didn't like Propero's Books at all. But hey, it's far from Pete's worst.

Re: Prospero's Books

Postby A » Mon May 22, 2006 10:04 pm

This may be so for some people, but then I'd like to read it in a review. I hate it, when people are talking only about technique, like this was everything a film is made of. It's like talking about a person and only describing the way he looks or moves.
Personally I'm so-so with greenaway. Besides "The cook, the thief, his wife and his lover" I haven't seen a film by him I've completely enjoyed, yet. He is a bit too "intellectual" for me also, but I like the "bombast"
My biggest problem with him is the construction of his films though, which is usually never very original or interesting to me, calling way too much attention to itself. He seems very egomanial, and unfortunately his ego doesn't seem to be close to mine, so I tend to dislike its display (contrary to most of Tarantino for example).
I tend to like the personally or emotionally boasty people more than the intellectually boasty. The latter usually take themselves far more serious (like i's something special to have complex ideas - come on... ).
But Greenaway is also quite playful, which I see as a big plus. But his playfulness is again rarely particularly interesting to me, as it also seems very enclosed.
Overall Greenaways films tend to be very enclosed in their own thinking-system, (which isn't very good for me, when I don't share it.)

Re: Prospero's Books

Postby Anasazie » Tue May 23, 2006 2:53 am

Yes, he's definitely an egomaniac and obviously holds himself in too high regard.

I've seen most of his work and tend to like some more than others. My favourite (and only completely successful Greenaway film) would be Z.0.0., but i really disliked Cook..... it's not original Pete, it's all been done before by better film-makers, be they French or Italian. Apparantly he asked the crew to watch a few of his favourite films before shooting in order to communicate part of what he was trying to do with the work, proof of his lack on an original idea and an ineptitude at expressing himself. This is present in most of his work.

Sans Soleil has been described by bombastic by some and in terms of the voice over and visual presentation i can kind of understand why they'd say that. But it has something amazing going on that's not going on in Greenaways' work, it's amazingly cerebral. With patience and thought, there's so much to feel. Which is so not the case with Peter's cinema.

Return to Film Talk

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 3 guests