Prospero's Books (1991) Poster

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Amazing Scholarship
tedg9 July 2000
Shakespeare is without peer, the man of whom Harold Bloom said he invented humanity. `The Tempest' is his richest and essentially his last play, clearly about himself and his career. John Gielgud is the finest Shakespearean actor of our age. Greenaway is the most creative, lush and introspective filmmaker working.

This film is important.

I've already had one comment some time back. But on reviewing, there are two things I'd like to point you to when you see it.

Prospero is based on Shakespeare himself of course, but also on Thomas Harriot, who was a Kabbalist. Harriot had led a mission to the new world in 1585, where he wintered over with Algonquian priests. He came back convinced of having discovered a new cosmology which he never published (because of continuing trials for heresy). But he did share with Galileo, Kepler and Descartes.

Shakespeare satirized Harriot in `Love's Labors Lost' as Holofernes, because Harriot was then allied with an opposing clique (including rival poet Marlowe). But they became close as events unfolded.

The first point is to look for Thomas Harriot's only published work, about his trip to Virginia. It is the Book of Utopias, with the paintings by artist John White. Just after that the sprites act out the Indian magical circle described by Harriot.

Second: Harriot's Kabbalah is based on 21 paths that the magician can open, and one that opens automatically as part of the game of life. Here, Greenaway has Prospero open the 21 books in weaving his magic. When he closes them, the spell recedes. The 22nd is the Book of Games, which the lovers open and close. Kabbalah provides for two `invisible' paths for creating magical artifacts. This we have in the Folio and The Tempest, numbers 23 and 24.

Gielgud suggested the collaboration, and we suppose the scholarship was a joint project. But this is deep work indeed, the only production I know that understood what the play is all about.

Greenaway says: "Theres a project, I'd like very much to do, called Prospero's Creatures' about what happened before the beginning. Sort of a prelude to The Tempest. And I've also written a play called Miranda, about what happens afterwards on the ship on the way home. It's about what happens to innocence and how it has to be destroyed."

We can only hope.
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A Masterful Film about the Limits of Film
tedg30 April 2000
I'm attracted to competence, and especially when the vision is unusual and moving. But I love self-referential art, in this case a movie that includes as part (in fact the center) of its message some perspective on what the movie is all about.

This film is one of my most valued experiences, and here, I'll just write about the self-reference. For this, you have to know the context of the play itself. `The Tempest' was written at the end of Shakespeare's career. Earlier, he had composed some of the richest drama that may ever be created. In so doing, the technique -- at least in the great plays -- was to grapple with great forces and ideas and project then into stories. The theatric convention of the days was one of sparse presentation: few props, sets, costumes.

But towards the end of Shakespeare's life, the conventions changed. Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones had introduced the notion of lush, magical special effects, and even popularized productions that consisted of nothing at all but the effects themselves. Shakespeare's prior efforts were deep structures which use the sparse conventions of the theater, without undue obfuscation from those. But here he was asked to produce, even compete, using techniques whose very nature is to distract. So he wrote a play ABOUT visual effects that obfuscate and manipulate, while USING visual effects to the same end.

But there's a deeper irony. Some think Prospero was modeled after John Dee, but this is likely not so, Instead the model was Magus Thomas Harriot who actually did visit the New World and report strange happenings. (In the winter of 1585, he wintered with Algonquian priests probably on, certainly near the land I'm writing from.) Harriot was the age's greatest scientist, but we hardly know him because he never wrote any books as he was under constant examination for heresy. There's lots to his story, all which Shakespeare would have known and partly lived, and the notion of Prospero's Books would have been especially rich at the time of writing.

Cinema is a medium which is all effects, nothing but illusion, and thus is nearly impossible to use as a lens for true visions of the world. So here we have Greenaway's film in which illusion is the point of the immensely clever theatric notion of Prospero's Books. The books are both the illusions and the distorted lens, and turned here into a means to make a film purely about what it means to be a film, and to do so with specific reference to Shakespeare's structure about the similar problem in the effect-laden theater. Moreover, Shakespeare's reference is to Harriot's earlier, similar conundrum between the motions of the great world and the imperfect lens of logic that is required to capture some image of those laws in books.

It's all so well conceived. I'll let others comment on the execution, which seems masterful to me. This film will live very long, and you will be less impoverished by seeing/experiencing it.
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Brilliant, but not an easy watch
Scoopy8 November 1998
Peter Greenaway is one of the great filmmakers, with an original and personal vision. This movie is a marvelous mixture of Shakespeare, visual poetry, music, art ... a feast for the imagination.

Having said that, I must add that I watched it with my wife whose succinct comment was "pretentious". Well, yes, it is a little pretentious, and there are spots that move along too slowly, so you can't just "let it happen" as you do with most movies. This one requires you to pay attention.

It includes what must be the longest single pan to the side ever filmed. I'm not sure how long it was, but it went on forever. I guess it must have gone more than 360 degrees, circled back to the original spot, where new sets had replaced the old. I'm not sure. But it is dazzling. Actually, you can take virtually any frame from this movie and make it into a poster.

Films have been around for about a century, and there isn't much around that doesn't recycle old material. Peter Greenaway is an exception. Like him or not, he's a dyed-in-the-wool original.
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10/10
A tempting view of The Tempest
J. Canker Huxley6 December 1998
Imagine if William Shakespeare, Leonardi DaVinci, Sigmond Freud, and Jean Luc Goddard all met in a dark alley, got drunk together, and made a film. If you could image the result, you would then get an idea of what this movie is about.

Told with the help multiple on-screen images and the strength of Sir John Guilgud narration and acting skills, Greenaway brings a new face to Shakespeare's "The Tempest." This film is innovative, sensual, and challenging as Shakespeare intended.

I would warn that this film sparks a cast of about 100+ naked people. Although it is nudity used in the best taste possible, this is not a film to be showing to the High School English class.
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10/10
Visually & artistically stunning
Afracious30 May 2000
The film opens with a cornucopia of fascinating images, including many naked bodies. The are a lot of nude bodies on show in this film. Some swimming underwater, some prancing around liberally. Sir John Gielgud is the prominent figure and voice of the film. He tells us all about the books, and his daughter on an island where they both are located. The story isn't going to entrap many viewers, but the look of it all really needs to be watched. Greenaway opens image after image in the centre of each frame, and large books are opened. The front of a woman's body is removed to reveal all her internal organs. It really deserves to be seen just to look at it all. This film is very appealing to the eye.
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worth it, just for Gielgud's voice
mindfire-33 July 2000
i miss Gielgud very much already. his voice was so rich, and this film is a smorgasbord of his voice. i find most Shakespeare a bit heavy and sluggish, so strangely perhaps, i find this movie a nice interpretation. and the books, the water, and the nudity are all wonderful. Greenaway is with imagery a bit the way Shakespeare is with words, a bit over-flush, over-ripe; so sometimes he's good and sometimes it just seems like excess. the blue guy was interesting to watch as well. maybe not best to be viewed in one sitting, but more than just a mere film, like being drunk in a flower garden in spring. or perhaps i'm just being poofy.
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A visually astonishing celebration of Shakespeare
chris-112430 May 2003
This is Peter Greenaway's most humane and enthralling feature, a visual tour-de-force which re-interprets Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' through the books of magic with which Prospero creates his realm. Sir John Gielgud gives a moving, heartfelt farewell performance in the title role, Michael Clarke is a sinuous, demonic Caliban, and Michael Nyman's score is fittingly triumphant. One sequence - the Masque - even turns the film into an opera.

Although the visuals are overloaded to a level of decadence rarely seen on film, it is always with a purpose. One quibble; Prospero's overlaying of his own voice on the characters makes some of the dialogue difficult to follow, especially if you are unfamiliar with the source material. The film demands to be seen on a wide screen.
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10/10
Visual feast beyond imagining . . .
Phillim21216 July 2017
. . . it's a pity the aesthetic choice was made to *not* tell the story.

That's my take-away from last night's viewing, my first since the film's theatrical release some 25 years ago. If you know Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' you'll fill in the narrative; if not, you'll have a splendid two-hour hallucination.

But 'Prospero's Books' is the 800-pound gorilla of art films. Nothing like it before or since. F'ing glorious pile of exquisity.

After Peter Greenaway's stunning vision, Michael Clark's Caliban is the star, along with the naked human body in all sizes, shapes and ages -- by the army-full, non-eroticized -- marginalia etchings come to life, caryatids, collossi, etc.

Gielgud's celebrated voice murmurs most of the lines, but only somebody who didn't see it to the end (or parroting somebody who didn't) will make the false claim that no actor but Gielgud speaks. The sound is beautifully engineered, vocals and music.
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10/10
Cinematic Magic - the Bard is the touchstone for today's technology
monabe5 February 2000
Peter Greenaway has given us a visual cinematic treat. This dazzling blend of technology, allegory and imagination is a multi-layered treat for those who seek the art that video and the digital world promise. Watch this movie on video to properly savour the intelligence and artistic genius that guides this visual delight.

Do not expect rationality or straight-line logic. Rather, enjoy this as a unique and idiosyncratic artistic cinematic vision. Pure cinema. All you need to know is the basic story of "The Tempest". Shakespeare. I am sure, would have understood what Peter Greenaway was about in providing such entertainment for a 20th century audience.
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8/10
A notable work, but come prepared
asu12 February 2001
I was absolutely in awe the first time I saw this film, but haven't really been able to sit through it again (its mainly the shoddy VHS I own), but I plan to give it the time it deserves. First off, I love Shakespeare, and I knew the Tempest fairly well before seeing this. I can imagine enjoying it fresh, but honestly, its main pts are for those familiar with the play. That said, Greenway has created a grand piece of artwork with this film. I love plot, I miss it often (and its often missing these days), but I equally enjoy works that don't use it or go beyond it. The visuals are lush, and Michael Nyman's score is fantastic...Prospero's Books is more experience than story, like a painting or a song.

Understandbly, Greenway is one of those filmmakers whose audience should be prepared for something different than the regular fare. I have a feeling my own attachment to the source material may be casting the film more glowingly than it deserves. The play has its flaws too, but for someone who takes the time it certainly rewards you well.

I'll comment on the nudity, very briefly. Sex, sensuality, and natural forms are three things that can be very differently perceived, and Prospero's Books deals with it in an adult (as in mature) manner, come that way and you'll be fine.
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It's a ballet
scottnickell6 June 2004
I found Prospero's Books fascinating, on many levels, but it wasn't until my second or third time watching it that I realized the "key" to unlocking this film: It's a ballet.

This film is essentially images and motion choreographed to music (this realization struck me during the opening credit sequence in one viewing). Now, it's an unusual ballet: The "music" includes the mellifluous recitation of "The Tempest" by Gielgud, and the choreography includes things like digital manipulation of images, and the images are heavily influenced by renaissance paintings, but I maintain that the film is, fundamentally, a ballet.

That means that you shouldn't really expect a clear expression of the story, any more than you would from any other ballet. What you should expect is a series of interesting images choreographed to music inspired by "The Tempest". As with any ballet, you can follow it if you're already familiar with the story, but otherwise, you should read the play in advance.

And, just a couple of things about some of the most common criticisms: The naked people? Think of them as invisible - they are visual symbolic representations of the "airy spirits" Prospero commands, his magic. The infamous pissing? Ariel p***ing on a model ship is just an obvious visual metaphor for Ariel creating a storm over the real ship.
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sit back and enjoy it
danmason-213 January 2001
Prospero's Books is perhaps difficult to watch and requires some patience, but it doesn't deserve the dragging through the mud that it has received from some of these comments. The best way to approach this film is to just calm down and sit back and enjoy it on a psychedelic level. To question it too much is to miss the point. Also, I don't understand the focus on the nudity that many of the comments here have. Again, it's a matter of just making yourself comfortable with it, and moving on. This is a remarkable piece of work, and it needs to be approached with an understanding that it is simply very different from what most people are used to seeing. And thank goodness for that. To say that it is "the worst movie ever" or some such comment is incredibly unfair and a bit misguided.
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8/10
An absolute anomaly of a film
Let me just say first, that this is one of the most extravagant films I have ever seen purely in the sense of sight & sound. I'm a huge fan of Peter Greenaway's work ever since I saw The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover a couple of years ago, so I knew partially what to expect vibe wise, but this movie stood out from the other 3 I have seen. It reminded me more of the A Zed & Two Noughts and less of The Cook or The Baby of Macon. In what manner, do you ask? In the manner that I had absolutely no idea what was happening through literally the ENTIRE film. I could not even gather the SYNOPSIS from the entire two hour runtime. It says a magician tries to stop his daughter from having an affair with an enemy, but I was paying close attention for the entire 2 hour runtime and never did I observe "an enemy", "an affair" of any sort, or Prospero attempting to stop anything. So, naturally, I have to say that this is the movie's primary downfall - some would argue "it's not a movie" because it's impossible to follow, but none such rules need to exist. I don't think I would ever watch the film again while actually paying full attention, but I will certainly be adding this to my queue of some of the most beautiful feasts for the eyes ever put to film, and I will most certainly be turning it on in the background at social gatherings in the future. It will be a nice change of pace from my usual Tales of Beatrix Potter - Featuring The Royal Ballet. I will say it's a great accomplishment in a fully singular manner, and it's absurd that this was made with a budget of under 2 million dollars while movies like Terminator 2, made the same year, cost about 100 million. If I didn't know any better, I'd say this is one of the most expensive looking movies I have ever seen. It's breathtaking, but it is absolutely not going to "do it" for most people. It's most certainly film art.

I find it silly that nobody seems to be in the middle about this movie! All reviews are either giving it a 10 and calling it an utter mastepiece, or giving it a 1 or 2 and calling it absolute garbage! There is most certainly a middle ground! Pros and cons, my friends!
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2/10
Skip This Mess & Read The Book
ccthemovieman-113 November 2006
"Sir" John Gielgud must have become senile to star in a mess of a movie like this one.;

This is one of those films, I suppose, that is considered "art," but don't be fooled.....it's garbage. Stick to the "art" you can admire in a frame because the films that are labeled as such are usually unintelligible forgeries like this.

In this masterpiece, Giegud recites Shakespeare's "The Tempest" while the camera pans away to nude people. one of them a little kid urinating in a swimming pool. Wow, this is heady stuff and real "art," ain't it?? That's just one example. Most of the story makes no sense, is impossible to follow and, hence, is one that Liberal critics are afraid to say they didn't "understand" so they give it high marks to save their phony egos. You want Shakespeare? Read his books.
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Illusions revoked
chaos-rampant3 July 2011
I think some knowledge of the play is important here. The Tempest was the last one that Shakespeare wrote alone near the end of his career and though short and simply structured, one of the most complex. It is about many things but most pertinently here for us, about the author creating, gathering the story around him and bringing characters to him to enact it. It is about the author as magician effecting control upon the fates with his obscure knowledge of spells by which he shapes the world to his liking. And eventually, it is about wilfully giving up the spells that sustain the illusion in which we are kept prisoners.

Into this loaded context that Shakespeare wrote about himself comes Peter Greenaway, with his own obsessions about the creative process. He has a perfect grasp of what's going on here; the film opens with Prospero writing the action with himself in it.

The film is not called by its original title though, it's about Prospero's books. 24 of them in all, the first 22 comprising vast, arcane knowledge (the knowledge that cost Prospero his dukedom) from which are born the illusions that motion the flow. The rest of the characters with the important exception of Caliban, are passive participants, mere pawns to be binded or moved according to the higher whim that creates the story.

There is one scene that threatens to kill this off. It's the protracted wedding sequence, so decadently opulent, with hordes of plumed naked bodies swirling in huge rooms. But it ends with Prospero invading this scene which he has imagined, pausing everything. The spectacle is hidden from view, behind mirrors, then behind a curtain, as Prospero delivers the beautiful solliloquy about life as a dream that ends with sleep.

It presages, for the first time with clarity, what is important for me in this work. The strange, mythic island as the mind, where as other Prosperos we pace up and down setting the stage for the illusions we choose to inhabit. Our grieves and perceived slights against us, our cravings and desires.

And the path leading out of it again, first the reconciliation not with the actual offenders (the Alonsos and Antonios) but our own figments of them inside the mind. And then by the destruction of our ideas and catalogues about things so that we may return to the things themselves, now receptive to what they have to offer.

All 22 books are destroyed by Prospero eventually, who gives up his magic. Another 2 books become available then, one is about games, the games that life is about. The other is what we come out of the ordeal with, the reward for our efforts that may enrich others in turn. Here encoded as a book about the actual Shakespeare play, where the corresponding pages are blank as yet-to-be-written.

Some of the filmmakers I most cherish belong in two groups. One is about seeking true perception, the things as they are (and us). It is about dismantling the cluttered fictions we weave around and associate with them, which obscure the true meaning whereby the things mean themselves to us. It is about removing the mask so that we may have in-sight of the actual shape.

Another group of films I am drawn to assail those same preconceived notions by fabricating others to replace them. Stories within stories, fictions passing as real, dreams as realities, various layered patterns. The idea here is that by removing one mask, the synthetic, we discover another hiding underneath. It is also about removing and revealing, about the distinction between an apparent and ultimate reality (this is not merely for the sake of philosophical discourse, but as visual addendums to what is actually realized in meditation).

Greenaway is one of the most prominent of the second group. So far, however, I had only been truly struck by The Draughtsman's Contract and found the rest interesting but not something to make my own. This is the second that captivates me, but a more difficult film than Draughtsman, more oblique, more impossible with annotated images.

But as great in its notions about the nature of reality. It's full of frames within frames, indeed some of the nested ones are observed by a chorus from the edges of the outer frame. And there is an image of Prospero working the story in his study as a boxed stage within a bigger one.

And more beautiful in how the story is envisioned. What must have been, in Shakespeare's time, sparse and invoked in the imagination, is here made alive, all of it. The toy boat tossed about in a miniature tempest, the drowned men salvaged by spirits of the water. Caliban, a brute in the original, here a most graceful dancer.

And a most thoughtful transition within Greenaway. Draughtsman and A Zed and Two Noughts ended with the destruction of the creator and his consciousness that fought to arrange the world. This one ends with the destruction of the arrangements by which the creator would arrange the world, and the creator survives by arranging himself in a way that he enters the world clear, empty, empty-to-be-filled again.
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The best motion picture ever made in the history of cinematography
petrovich-15 February 2004
This film is one of the very few examples of a cinema as a visual art and that is why it irritates so many people. It's very sad but one doesn't need a screen to follow 99,9 % of the movies made for the last one hundred years of the history of cinematography: you can simply broadcast them on radio. But this one belongs to 0,1 %(as well as Fellini's Otto e Mezzo, or Paradzhanov's Sayat Nova, for example) that you really have to WATCH. So try to perceive "Prospero's Books" not just as an illustrative material to some pieces of literature, but as an art exhibition in motion. Maybe that will make it easier for you, dear Hollywood junk viewer.
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9/10
One of a kind: Peter Greenaway's mesmerizing images combined with 86-year-old John Gielgud speaking
Terrell-428 January 2008
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 an almost 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 real depth, and it's gratifying to see this great actor in such a rich and demanding part this late in his career.

For those who like idiosyncratic works, I recommend Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. As for Prospero's Books...it simply is what it is.
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3/10
Imaginative but inane, gratuitous and pretentious
grantss10 October 2014
An imaginative telling of Shakespeare's "The Tempest". However, that's one of the few good things I can say about it: it is inane, gratuitous and pretentious.

Very little makes sense, even at the most basic of levels. Most scenes just seem to be excuses to have hordes of people, men and women, run around naked. Critics will call that bold, I call it gratuitous and meaningless.

Performances are hard to judge, as it is difficult to look past the meaningless, random plot. John Gielgud provides gravitas in the lead role, but his voice seems to drone on after a while and get quite irritating. Nobody else is worth a mention.

If you're looking for a good version of The Tempest, this is not it.
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Entertained by beauty
Renee750il20 January 2004
I love Shakespeare, to read and to see it performed. I also loved Prospero's Books. Granted, I've only watched it twice as yet, and will undoubtedly indulge in a course of dyed-in-the-wool over-intellectualization and cerebral gymnastics during some future viewing, but these first two viewings (with a lovely bottle of Beringer Brothers White Zinfandel) were utterly given over to happily losing all perspective and immersing myself into the fantastical visual orgy spread before me. But then, I also like Heironymus Bosch and Salvador Dali.

Films are to entertain. Film makers cannot be required to entertain each and every member of the viewing public with each film. That said, there is no rule specifying just how a film must entertain us, nor is there a rule limiting any of us to being entertained in a specific form. We can be entertained by purest brain candy, the most convoluted mystery, brilliant wit, even by being frightened witless or moved to tears. In this case, I took my entertainment from the unadulterated, hedonistic beauty - both of sight and sound - offered up in a blaze of brave disregard for bourgeois ideals, and I'm not the least apologetic.

Yes, it did enrich my life, just by the sheer beauty and excess of it.
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Scrumptious
crayon2 August 1999
This is without doubt my favourite film. Greenaway creates such depths of lushness that each frame could be hung up and enjoyed by itself. Like lake sailing, it's quiet riches are not for everyone, but I do use it as a litmus test for my potential friends. This was the role Geilgud was born for.
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8/10
"The Tempest" as proto-scifi?
KFL28 September 2001
Whatever else you might say about Prospero's Books, it is certainly original. Despite its being based on the Shakespeare play "The Tempest".

Like the play, the movie posits some kind of unnatural or supernatural power residing in the books in question; but the movie takes a stab at just what these books might have contained, and so considers them more as books in the traditional sense--as founts of knowledge that can impart, to the capable reader, newfound powers--than as what they represent in the plays, a repository for magical spells.

Thus it is postulated that in addition to their use in prayer and for amusement, books may yield powers of an immediate kind--powers beyond those available through the knowledge of oral traditions, say. This can perhaps be construed as a schema for science fiction; but such an interpretation is new with Greenaway's work.

I found the ubiquitous nudity distracting for the first ten or fifteen minutes, but quickly became used to it. It is effective in creating an atmosphere--indeed, as an Edinburgh Film Society review notes, "the sheer volume of naked flesh on display is almost surreal." I think it was surreal; I think that was the point, in part at least. To characterize this as pornography is to be terminally clueless.

The other common complaint about this film, that it is pretentious, will depend entirely on whether you think it has been successful in giving us a remarkably fresh reinterpretation of Shakespeare. I think it has been, though the last half-hour dragged a bit.
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10/10
Brilliant - A Must See
cheshire55122580020 March 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This movie was so astonishingly brilliant I had a hard time watching it the first time. I was literally shocked. It is not for the kids and I wouldn't necessarily let the teenagers watch it either, but for adults it is the best adaptation of a Shakespearean work I have ever seen. If you are offended by nudity and human biologic functions, I would skip this one.

Others may mess with the Bard but this one elevates him. I do not generally approve of adaptations of classic literature, but this one goes off on a tangent based on the Tempest and you are glad that you went along for this incredibly strange trip.

I heartily recommend this movie to adults as it is visually stunning and an art film experience you don't want to miss.
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9/10
Visual and philosophical masterpiece.
Autonome9 August 1999
Possibly Greenaway's greatest work, and possibly (dare I say it?) John Gielgud's greatest as well. This film is so full of amazing talent in incidental roles, and ground-breaking cinematography, that it's easy to forgive the weak performance of one or two main characters. Add the Greenaway's usual lineup for the score by Micheal Nyman along with unique vocals, with state of the art digital effects masterfully and transparently placed in a medieval setting, and you have the elements of a masterpiece. I also appreciated the effect of the slow but then sudden realization toward the end that the whole story may just have been a phantasm leading to utter madness, or maybe it was all in truth, but that ultimately, truth is nothing more than what is imagined, so the question is mute. That is a stellar ending, and for the viewers attentively following the story it is unexpected, and leaves one reeling in awe.
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10/10
When Dionysius beats Apollo...
atsantos15 March 2004
When I return to this film, I always remember Nietzsche's writings concerning "words and music". According to him, it's impossible to listen the lyric of the ninth symphony of Beethoven, so overwhelmed we are with the music itself. In part, this happens with this "Prospero's Books". Ever single plan is a beautiful painting in movement. In here, images assume the same centrality that is played by the music in Beethoven's ninth. We become so powerfully taken by this frames that we forget the plot. To some viewers, this could be felt like a sin. For me, is pure poetry. In Nietzsche's words, is Dionysius beating Apollo (although for the German philosopher, images are always by the side of Apollo), it's our innermost self's taking advantage of us. In poetry, not always a story is important. After all, don't we have very recently one cry of pure beauty with that `a-narrative' film that is `Lost in translation'?
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1/10
Greenaway's career ending film
Andy-29622 August 2007
Once upon a time, Peter Greenaway was considered a serious artist. 1991's Prospero's Books ended that. To understand this, let's remember that in the 1960s and 1970s, Greenaway became known for some witty, short films playing with several of his obsessions, like counting, classification, sexuality, etc. He graduated to feature length films in the 1980s: after the (unwatchable) The Falls, he made a series of fine, intelligent, cerebral (if sometimes hard to take) art movies: The Draughtsman's Contract, A Zed and Two Noughts, The Belly of an Architect, Drowning by Numbers. These four movies, made back to back, are his best in a 40-plus year career. Then, in 1989, came The Cook, The Thief, his Wife and Her Lover, his most successful film so far, and a truly success de scandal, with his brilliant but often shocking images. After The Cook, everyone called him a genius, and he might have believed those accolades, since right after that he made one of the most self-indulgent (and unwatchable) films ever made: Prospero's Books. An adaptation (for lack of a better word) of Shakespeare's The Tempest, made at the request of its star, the octogenarian John Gielgud (who have played the part of Prospero on stage, and had unsuccessfully asked a number of prominent directors to bring the play with him to the screen), this film is truly terrible: shot entirely on a sound stage, is a parade of naked people, awful use of digital imagery (which has rapidly look obsolete with the passage of time), and poor old Gielgud speaking all the parts (!). The movie looks as the filming of a Shakespeare play as made by an idiot savant, except that this idiot doesn't even look here to be very savant. Not surprisingly, few people liked Prospero's Books. After this fiasco, Greenaway has continued making movies, as well as exhibitions for museums, but with the exception of The Pillow Book, almost no one has watched them, or care for them.
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