Color, 1991, 124m.
Directed by Peter Greenaway
Starring John Gielgud, Isabelle Pasco, Mark Rylance, Michael Clark, Michel Blanc, Erland Josephson, Tom Bell
King Records (Blu-ray & DVD) (Japan R0 HD/NTSC), Alliance (Finland, Sweden R2 PAL), Llamentol (Spain R2 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
When The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover hit American theaters in 1990, director Peter Greenaway scored a major breakout hit on the art house circuit thanks to much scandal over its MPAA-imposed X rating (which was refused by Miramax) and heaps of critical praise. Two of his earlier films were quickly rolled out as well, and anticipation ran high to see where he would go next. Thanks to the direct participation of Miramax and the most lavish European funding he ever received, the end product was Prospero's Books, an ambitious assault on the senses that found him experimenting on the big screen for the first time with Quantel Paintbox, a digital means of manipulated and overlaying filmed images in a painterly style he would go on to use in future films, and early high-definition television, in this case Hi-Vision in Japan. Amusingly, when the film was in post-production in Japan, tight security had to be kept due to the film's rampant nudity (the most ever in Greenaway's career), which went against the country's ban on pubic hair at the time in films and television. The film itself is a version of William Shakespeare's (most likely) final play, The Tempest, earlier filmed by Derek Jarman, with John Gielgud fulfilled a lifelong ambition by playing the title character, his favorite stage role.
After being deposed by his brother and the king of Naples, magician and unacknowledged Duke of Milan Prospero is stranded on an island where he can let his powers run rampant and take advantage of his library of valuable books. His daughter, Miranda (Pasco), has grown up on the island surrounded by spirits including Prospero's servant, Ariel (played by multiple actors of different ages), as well as the deformed Caliban (Clark), a slave of sorts to Prospero and son of the twisted witch Sycorax. When the traitors are shipwrecked on the island during a violent sea storm at the beginning of the film, Prospero must manipulate the many players to execute a plan whose true meaning only becomes apparent after Isabelle falls in love with another new visitor, Prince Ferdinand (Rylance).
The film sticks almost identically to the spoken lines within the play, but here the difference lies in the presentation of everything as a creation of Prospero, who speaks each line either solo or in tandem with the other actors' voices. As a result the effect is one of Prospero generating the film itself in front of our eyes with the addition of a cataloguing of each book offering an additional bouquet of delights as well as a sort of cinematic chapter structure to the film, which pays off nicely with the revelation of the last two titles at the end. The film is of course a visual feast thanks to some incredibly complex staging and camera movement (with remarkable cinematography as always by the great Sacha Vierny), with elements of theater, dance, painting, and singing all playing crucial roles as well. Perhaps the most important artistic element turned out to be bittersweet as the powerful, haunting score by Michael Nyman, Greenaway's collaborator on numerous prior features and short films, would turn out to be the last time they worked together. The disagreement primarily stemmed from the use of the track "Miranda," which is essentially submerged in the final cut in a watered-down arrangement; it's a pity they've never reunited since as the alchemy of their partnership was truly one of a kind.
Unfortunately Greenaway's film turned to be far more experimental and difficult than audiences expected at the time, with many viewers utterly confused when it initially opened in a handful of major cities. The wider release by Miramax was accompanied by printed notices handed out offering a synopsis of the story of the The Tempest, since a working knowledge of the play's plot is essential if you intended to follow the action at all. Incredibly, the film was somehow given an R rating in its complete form despite the nonstop parade of nudity; presumably its (mostly) non-sexual nature was the deciding factor. (On the other hand, the optically fogged Japanese laserdisc was a hilariously pointless experience.) At the time Miramax hadn't been acquired by Disney, so in typical fashion the home video rights bounced around a bit with a cropped laserdisc and VHS released by Fox. The fact that the film was completed in HD rather than on film meant that it was actually in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 but projected in theaters at 1.85:1, but the cropping to 1.33:1 for home video proved ruinous as the vast majority of compositions were either compromised or wrecked entirely. Fortunately the thunderous Dolby Surround track remained intact, and it's still a brilliantly aggressive, manipulative mix guaranteed to keep your home theater active.
That highly flawed transfer was the only one available for decades, and for some reason the film has stubbornly remained unavailable on either American or English home video since it's first go-round in the early '90s. Though it drew substantial audiences, the film quickly became less than a high priority for Miramax, which is a shame as both this and Cook could easily be worthy of the Criterion treatment. Hopes ran high in 2012 when the Scandinavian label announced both a Blu-ray and DVD at the same time as Greenaway's follow-up film, The Baby of Mâcon (which never received an American release in any form at all). Unfortunately the Blu-ray was canceled due to "element issues," and only a no-frills DVD ended up being released in a soft-looking but passable transfer from a 35mm print that was at least widescreen at last. For some reason the supplemental short film Greenaway made at the same time, "A Walk through Prospero's Library," has yet to be included anywhere as a bonus feature, nor has a theatrical trailer ever turned up.
In 2015, King Records in Japan released Prospero's Books (thankfully with no optical censorship) as part of a Japanese Peter Greenaway Blu-ray boxed set packaged with Drowning by Numbers and The Baby of Mâcon. If you're familiar with the history of the film and how it looked in theaters, the results here are shockingly good. The HDTV process at the time gave it a somewhat odd, inconsistent look with some of the more heavily processed shots appearing soft or artificial, particularly a couple of lengthy moments during the finale where it looks much closer to TV than film. That said, it's an extremely accurate representation of how the film looked on the big screen and features more tightly resolved detail in close ups; furthermore the 1.78:1 framing is really ideal as it exposes all of the available image. Colors look superb with the very vivid blues of Prospero's costumes and the intense warm hues of the climactic masque sequence really popping off the screen. It's not exactly the kind of transfer you can convey accurately with frame grabs (click on any of the ones here) but it's quite nice in motion, all things considered. Accompanied by optional Japanese subtitles, the DTS-HD MA track is excellent as well with the rear speakers getting a nice workout and Nyman's score sounding as audacious and rich as ever.