“O brave new world that has such people in it!” And it’s indeed a brave new world that Peter Greenaway presents in his intensely radical, intensely personal and completely unique film adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero’s Books (1991). Simply put, there’s nothing quite like it in all of cinema—and that’s either a very good thing, or a very perplexing one, depending on how you feel about Greenaway’s work and tampering with the Bard. The latter should be of little concern, however, since the film’s every bit as much a love letter to Shakespeare as an adaptation of his play. Greenaway’s multileveled concept is to present The Tempest as a play being written by the exiled Duke Prospero, who is played by 86-year-old John Gielgud. The project was, in fact, a pet project for Gielgud—and why not? In Greenaway’s approach, Gielgud gets to deliver all of the dialogue since he’s writing it. And it works better than it probably sounds.
Prospero’s Books was only made possible because of the advent of high-definition video—combined with the fact that developers of the format were so intrigued and challenged by what Greenaway wanted to do that much of the work was done for little or nothing. The results were amazing for more reasons than their visual splendor. Greenaway presents the play, the writing of the play and a look at Prospero’s magical library of 24 books (reflecting the 24 frames-per-second of movie film). The centerpiece of the work is a 12-minute masque that blends color, spectacle, dance, exotica, Michael Nyman’s extraordinary music and several acres of naked flesh. (There is more full-frontal nudity—male and female—in this film than you’ll encounter in anything I can think of.) But there’s much more than that—including the things (thanks to Shakespeare and Gielgud) that all other Greenaway pictures lack: simple humanity and a heart.