1991, R, 124 min. Directed by Peter Greenaway. Starring John Gielgud, Michael Clark, Michel Blanc, Erland Josephson, Sabelle Pasco.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Nov. 29, 1991
Dense and impenetrable, Prospero's Books deconstructs Shakespeare's The Tempest with egotistical fervor -- the play's not the thing, but director Greenaway's vanity is. Set in a Roman bathhouse serving as the enchanted isle in the play, Prospero's Books is a movie in perpetual motion, choreographed as a whirling, churning chaos of superimposed images, framing devices, and stylized scenes akin to tableaux in paintings. (No wonder: Greenaway is a painter.) For those with a prurient bent, there is more nudity in this film -- extremely asexual at that -- than in anything you've ever seen. If you're unfamiliar with Shakespeare's work, forget it: you'll have no idea what's going on in this multi-layered circus. The books in the title are the books of “magic” which Prospero uses to rule his domain inhabited by sprites, feral beings, and apparitions, and Greenaway uses them as points of references to Shakespeare's text without mercy. The regal Gielgud, who supplies the voices for all of the characters until the film's end, presides over this piece of sensory overload in the spirit of the show must go on; you can only guess what he thought about Greenaway's excesses. Watching Prospero's Books, you also can't help but wonder who this intensely eclectic movie is for. Whatever the audience, one thing is for sure: when all is said and done, it's a Tempest in a teapot.