FESTIVAL EPREVIEWE A magnificent Sir John Gielgud stars in PETER GREENAWAY’s latest offering Prospero’s Books, a richly visual reworking of The Tempest. Trevor Johnston listens in as everyone’s favourite movie egghead traces the connections between his own work and the wonderful world of the Bard.


lever clogs. Smart arse. We derive terms of insult for those whose intelligence makes us feel uncomfortable. They’re certainly the kind ofwords that his most vigorous detractors would hurl at Peter Greenaway, the man who has traded in the cinema of conspicuous erudition ever since he swapped his artist’s easel for a movie camera, exchanging the picture frame for a director’s viewfinder.

While the mainstream film industry endlessly plunders its own past, Greenaway’s instantly recognisable offerings draw their inspiration from sources as diverse as Renaissance table paintings, Jacobean revenge tragedy, pioneer cine-anatomist Edward Muybridge, or all manner of deeply obscure 19th century English landscape artists. You’ll search in vain for the Vermeer ‘gags’ in the latest I Arnie flick, but they’re there, for example, in A Zed And Two Noughts.

In his latest film Prospero ’5 Books, Greenaway has turned his attention to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but the groundbreaking use of the very latest High Definition Television technology and an even more expansive flourish of Renaissance frippery than even he’s previously set before us means that it’s far from being a straightforward screen adaptation. As with much of his 805 work, even those who might find the cerebral agenda rather daunting will surely luxuriate in the vivid swathes of colour conjured up by Sacha Vierny’s cinematography or the neo-baroque musical stylings of fellow i Greenaway regular, composer Michael i Nyman. In the sculpted perfection ofSir John Gielgud’s delivery of the verse, here is l

a great classical actor’s near-definitive Prospero preserved on screen for this and future generations to admire, while the roll-call of the supporting cast Michael Clark dancing Caliban, Beneix protégé Isabelle Pasco as Miranda, Euro doyens Erland Josephson and Michel Blanc as the marooned Milanese is impressive to say the least.

Tireless, eloquent and probably much-needed as an elucidator of his own films, Greenaway is to be found one drizzly morning in early August cloistered in the spartan cutting room at his Hammersmith production offices, holding forth on the subject of Prospero’s Books as a steady queue of film journos file in and out. Although the thought crossed my mind that my failure to grasp the significance of the water trough in Flemish landscape etching was about to be exposed without mercy, Greenaway in person is the soul of charm. A learned man certainly, and formidably articulate too, but his brisk polysyllables primarily communicate boundless enthusiasm, not cleverer-than-thou

ll we believe

cinema to be an art form, then we must allow it the complexity we allow a Flaubert, a Tolstoy ora



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superiority. ‘I do get accused of intellectual exhibitionism.’ he reflects. ‘and that‘s something I do have to take on board. But if cinema is to be an extraordinarily

a sophisticated medium. and ifwe are to

believe it to be an art form. then we must allow it the complexity we allow a Flaubert.

a Tolstoy or a Moliere .‘

Or indeed a Shakespeare. for that matter. The meeting ofGreenaway and the Bard I that is Prospero’s Books actually came about at the behest of Sir John Gielgud. Having already approached the likes of Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa (and turned ' down Derek Jarman), the great knight ofthe ; theatre was impressed enough by his two days’ work on the director‘s A TV Dante to suggest that they tackle the magical last play together. “It was perfect subject matter for me,’ explains Greenaway. ‘Completely , unlike, say, Hamlet and Macbeth. there’s nothing remotely confrontational in The Tempest, and as I’m constantly looking for other ways and means ofexploring narrative, the decidedly non-psychodrama approach in the play fits very well with my own preoccupations.’

‘I really don’t think it‘s necessary for the cinema to behave in a masturbatory way and create a frisson of personal excitement. Many other art forms, like the novel, the

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10 The List 23 29 August 1991