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‘Prospero’s Books’ (R)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 29, 1991

Go ahead and brush up on your Shakespeare. It won't help you navigate through "Prospero's Books," British director Peter Greenaway's ravishing but incomprehensible adaptation of "The Tempest."

Shakespeare's final play is about a duke exiled to an enchanted island with only his lovely daughter and a fragment of his beloved library for solace. Sir John Gielgud wanted to film "The Tempest" in the worst way before ending his career, and after approaching several directors, he settled on Greenaway, maker of the controversial "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover." The resulting film is the work of a footnote fetishist. Even the Bard himself would be at sea with this version of "The Tempest," an unfathomable flood of intoxicating imagery, a banquet of beauty so rich and overripe it is ultimately indigestible.

The film begins with Greenaway's fanciful visualizations of the contents of Prospero's 24 precious volumes, a treasure trove of arcane knowledge, bestiaries, an herbal, cosmographies, atlases and books of colors, love, pornography and architecture. A short film of this conceit would have been entrancing.

"Prospero's Books" is Greenaway's peculiar brand of insular, rococo filmmaking at its most extreme. The auteur creates an unimaginably lush screenscape that occasionally feels like a trippy hippie light show inspired by Ecstasy. Everyone but the filmmaker will need a map -- which Greenaway has in fact provided, in the form of a 164-page softcover art book/script/explication that accompanies the release of the film. (And just think -- some people can't even write a letter!)

As a lure, the ad blurbs promise that "Prospero's Books" features copious nudity, and Greenaway hired hundreds of unclad extras to populate this Paradise. But the effect is strangely unerotic. Or maybe not so strangely, as Greenaway, as always, is primarily fascinated with the organic processes and decay of the body. And every bodily secretion and excretion gets its moment on the screen, beginning with the sprite Ariel endlessly peeing into the pool where Prospero bathes and writes.

As in "Drowning by Numbers" and "A Zed and Two Noughts," Greenaway also indulges his fascination with games and puzzles here, and it is amusing to identify the Great Masters paintings Greenaway alludes to in his tableaux vivants. His compositions are dense and gorgeous, full of superimpositions and framed images, and finally exhausting to the eye.

Submerged somewhere beneath all of this is the play, poor thing. Gielgud's Prospero, who has used the knowledge in his books to create his own fantastic world in exile, also provides the voices for every character, including the four Ariels of various ages, all in blond Harpo Marx wigs and red beaded chokers, and Caliban (performed as an extended and painful-looking series of contortions by modern dancer Michael Clarke). It's a lovely idea, but Gielgud's musical, magical voice is electronically multiplied and otherwise tampered with, a la Laurie Anderson, rendering him -- and Shakespeare -- all but unintelligible.

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