Between words and images (Prospero’s Books movie review)

Peter Greenaway is a director and a visual artist. His cinema is composed of movies created by an unconventional painter, who – paradoxically – is not freed from the power of words. What is more, he incorporated experimental techniques of High Definition Video into his language of creative expression. An example of such artistic and innovative vision is the movie “Prospero’s Books”, which is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”.

“Prospero’s Books” are characterized by a specific type of imagery, which forms depicted reality. Greenaway is a creator, who converts (not presents) the world described by Shakespeare. The nature of image, understood also as a matter which enters into relations with the words) becomes a problem. The original text seems to be an excuse to build a series of metaphors and to multiply reinterpretations.

Prospero (John Gielgud) creates a spectacle, which is designed as a compensation for all harms. The world of “The Tempest” emerges from the protagonist’s imagination, and more specifically – from the cards of his books. The original polyphony of voices turns into only one voice that belongs to the author (designer/director). Greenaway’s not interested in history, but in the very act of creation. Negation of traditional form of narrative and assembly seems to be a natural consequence of this shift. The director tries to capture on the screen the mechanisms of imagination – different electronically processed visions constantly intermingle, and the order of reality mixes with fiction, which is represented by animations that are woven into the main narrative line. What’s more, sequences of scenes that illustrate the actions of beings inhabiting the world of the author’s fantasy are interrupted by registration of the work of one ancient feather. The words (and the action of ‘The Tempest”) seem to be formed here and now. Greenaway builds here the full-size metaphor of the process of creating. He wants to show you something that seems to be indefinable. That’s why he uses so-called ‘Windows aesthetics’ (screen divided into a few frames), which enables obtaining an effect of simultaneity of events, but ruins the illusion of reality at the same time. Elizabethan tragedy undergoes a metamorphosis – it is transformed into a post-modern drama, in which the words (just like reality) seem to be liquid (it’s illustrated by the images of the spilled ink). Books (text) turn out to be a full-fledged character of the film.

Greenaway combines new aesthetics with intertextuality, which makes his movie a complex game between convention and tradition, between audience’s perception and memory. We are dealing here with both: construction and deconstruction of meaning. Baroque styling, elements characteristic for opera and ballet, and photo-quotes of masterpieces of European painting are just some of the components of the polyphonic film hybrids, which are ‘Prospero’s Books’. The director utilizes up the material that is permanently embedded in the culture. He creates an eccentric collage, which is a tribute to Shakespeare and a sign of his own artistry at the same time.