Prospero's Books is nothing less than an almost overwhelming feast of images, stuffed with charms, magic and metaphors. It is Peter Greenaway's vision of what The Tempest might have been had Prospero used those 24 books of great knowledge and magic he took with him when he was sent into exile by his brother.
Prospero had been the Duke of Milan when he was overthrown. Twelve years later he inhabits an island with his daughter, Miranda, who was three when they were sent away. There is Caliban, of course, a "freckled whelp, hag-born," but all the other inhabitants are sprites and spirits. And now Prospero, delving into his books and writing his story, imagines his revenge. The first of his books is The Book of Water, a tome of parchment pages that bring rain and mist and dripping tears. As Prospero lies in a pool and writes, his captured sprite, the child Ariel, urinates spell-like into the calm water, and we see Prospero's tale of a vast tempest that brings to the shore of his island his enemies, and the son of one of them. As Prospero writes we see the books and the images from them...The Book of Mirrors, The Book of Colours, The Atlas Belonging to Orpheus, A Primer of Small Stars, The Book of Utopias, The Book of Love..."drawings of a naked man and a naked woman. Everything else is conjecture."
From these books we flow into Prospero's magic world of revenge, as he takes the knowledge of his books to add layers to his plans and his story. Yet when Miranda spies young Ferdinand she falls immediately in love. Having only known her father and the scabrous Caliban, Ferdinand is the most beautiful creature she has ever seen. "O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in't!" she cries. Prospero cannot deny his daughter, yet he knows this all is just a story that he is writing...or is it? Even as Ferdinand and his daughter pledge their love, he says...
"Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits, and Are melted into air, into thin air: And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on; and our little life Is rounded with a sleep."
But not quite. Eventually, with the prodding from the several Ariels (a child, an adolescent, a young man) to whom Prospero keeps promising freedom, Prospero forgives his enemies and destroys his books. He is no less wise for all this.
For over two hours Greenaway gives us images that float and mix, that overlay page upon moving page. John Gielgud, at 86, plays Prospero and speaks the words Prospero writes for all the characters. Around him are magical creatures that dance and run, sing and fall, who serve him and follow his commands. These creatures, male and female, young and old, are nude. Shoulders, hips, breasts, arms become as much an ingredient in the movie as the settings and exaggerated costumes. There are many times when the screen moves with jiggling male and female parts, but there also is a pagan naturalness that is neither carnal nor innocent. Greenaway sets up endless detailed images that are part Renaissance paintings, part dream settings and part tableaux. The camera rarely rests, but constantly moves through rooms and forests. The effect is just about overwhelming. There is a reason that, in the middle of a fine, rich dinner a small scoop of sherbet is served. It lets us pause and ready our palate for the next course. We don't have that luxury with Prospero's Books, and in the middle of the movie I was longing for a rest. That's a small complaint for a movie which offers so much to the eye and the mind.
The combination of Greenaway's vision and Gielgud's skill (and voice) is hard to overpraise. Although 86 when he filmed the movie, Gielgud projects that famous voice with subtlety, skill and, when needed, power. When he speaks the words Prospero has written for his daughter or for Ferdinand, he still sounds like Gielgud but he is so skilled he can differentiate between male and female, young and old. He gives a performance of depth, and it's gratifying to see this great actor in such a rich and demanding role this late in his career.