Gielgud the magician

Wednesday, November 13, 1991

Prospero's Books
Written and directed by Peter Greenaway
Adapted from Shakespeare's The Tempest

Starring Sir John Gielgud, Isabelle Pasco, Michael Clarke
To be shown at Melbourne's Kino and cinemas in other cities around Christmas
Reviewed by Mario Giorgetti

Peter Greenaway has, in a cinematic way, succeeded in imitating the inimitable. Prospero's Books is a enchanting film about magic and the meaning of art. It becomes in the end lavish and hypnotic, if not too much of a good thing.

In this sea of pure fantasy there are no beacons, no right or wrong way to go. One is swept along by the poetry of the images and becomes interwoven as a thread into its rich tapestry.

In this adaptation of Shakespeare's last play, Prospero (Sir John Gielgud), magician and deposed duke of Milan, is exiled to an enchanted isle, whence he plots revenge on his usurpers. At the core of the story are the 24 books that old Prospero is given by his friend Gonzalo as a charitable parting gesture, and which comprise a kind of encyclopedic font of knowledge and wisdom.

Originator and master of people and of events, which he manipulates with deft strokes of his quill, Prospero is unchallenged ruler of his island. As the author of his own fantastic story, he finally turns his anger to reconciliation and allows the characters he has created to come alive and speak with their own voices. Forgiveness has set them free, and it has unburdened Prospero himself of his thoughts of vengeance.

Imitation was far from Greenaway's intention in this film. He wanted to go beyond the mere retelling of a magical story to vastly improving it with all the wizardry of the medium. He has created, in the process, a visually spectacular vehicle so crowded with erotic images and beatific compositions that the words, spoken for the most part by Gielgud, become at times unintelligible and almost superfluous.

This is erotica in a voyeuristic, hands-off guise which, though artistically done and not at all in bad taste, may nevertheless be peeper-pandering, self-indulgent, and quite over the top. But on the positive side, and on the side of pure entertainment, Prospero's Books manages spatial illusion beautifully and creates a visual cornucopia of immense proportions.

Most importantly, the film finds in Gielgud as Prospero (a role he has played on the stage a number of times) a master magician. It is his brilliant though understated performance that finally lifts this film to the level of artistic credibility.

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