Welsh-born director and artist Peter Greenaway has yet to make a film that isn’t fascinating and original , from the 17th century mystery The Draughtsmans’ Contract (1982) to the disturbing and obsessive black comedies A Zed and Two Naughts (1985) , Drowning by Numbers (1988) and the wonderfully grotesque The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. But Greenaway’s elegant visual style owes as much to his background as an artist as it does his career as a filmmaker, even though Greenaway has made films from British television that date back to the `60s. His films remain an acquired taste, but once that taste has been acquired, his films are richly rewarding intellectual entertainment.
Greenaway’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest is such a unique and visually overwhelming film, that unless one is almost on intimate terms with the play, it could be very rough going indeed. Filmed in huge sound stages in Amsterdam, Greenaway’s stunning film stars Sir John Gielgud as the exiled Duke of Milan, Prospero, set adrift with his daughter Miranda by his usurping brother Antonio. Greenaway has Prospero – now castaway on a deserted island – imagine that he creates the play The Tempest, and the action we see is the product of Prospero’s imagination as he manipulates the characters of his drama as well as the legion of fairies, sprites, nymphs and monsters that inhabit his magic land. (Greenaway’s idea of having Prospero as a God-like figure manipulating the events eerily recalls Alain Resnais’ overlooked 1977 Providence, another film that had the great Gielgud as a writer imagining he controls the events in his life.) .
Prospero imagines a storm that brings his brother Antonio, as well as Alonso, the king of Naples and his son Ferdinand to his shores. Separated from the rest by the storm, the young Ferdinand meets Prospero and his daughter, quickly falling in love with her. With help from the sprite Ariel, Prospero tries to trap his enemies, but after giving his daughter’s hand to Ferdinand and being moved by his brother’s remorse when he thought Ferdinand was dead, Prospers decides that “the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance”. He resolves to return to Milan with his forgiven enemies, where the aging magician’s “every third thought will be my grave.”
It’s a simple, beautiful play, and Greenaway has chosen a singular approach in its telling. He fills the screen with an onslaught of images (the film was shot by the great Sacha Vierny, who lensed Alan Renais’ Last Year at Mareinbad and Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour) and naked bodies of the island’s spirits. Some of the film looks like paintings by Titian or Rubens magically come to life, while other images (Claribel, the King’s daughter, looks like she stepped out of a canvas by Gustav Klimt, the Milanese look like exaggerated versions of Rembrandt’s "Staalmeesters") reflect Greenaway’s eclectic artistic tastes. Not all of it is successful: The monster Caliban, played by Michael Clark, performs all his scenes in modern dance, the comic relief of Trinculo and Stephano seems out of place in such wild surroundings and having three Ariels doesn’t add anything to the play.
There are some wonderful conceits here that deserve mention. Michael Nyman has written some fine music for the film (he seems to save his best music for Greenaway’s films and his worst for films like Jane Campion’s awful The Piano), and he has soprano Marie Angel, Australian pop singer Deborah Conway and German chanteuse Ute Lemper sing the parts of Iris, Juno, and Ceres, respectively, in a wedding masque. But the best invention here are Prospero’s books themselves, mentioned in the play as the source of Prospero’s magic, and added here as 24 titles by Greenaway (a book of water, of mirrors, of motion, etc.). The books come to life with great computer generated animation that recalls the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge.
Gielgud’s performance here is definitive. Few living actors live, breathe and inhabit Shakespeare’s words as well as Gielgud, and his Prospero is reason enough to see this stunning and remarkable film. But as good fortune would have it, Greenaway has constructed such an astounding visual orgy around that performance that one could watch this film dozens of times before the eye successfully cataloged all its inventions.