NEW YORK — 'THE Tempest," one of William Shakespeare's last and greatest plays, has a long tradition of revisionist movie adaptations. American director Paul Mazursky updated it for the 1980s, for example, while British filmmaker Derek Jarman did a campy version set in an English house; and don't forget "Forbidden Planet," the 1950s science-fiction classic, with Ariel played by Robby the Robot and Caliban replaced by "monsters from the id."The latest filmmaker to work radical changes on "The Tempest" is British director Peter Greenaway, whose keen intellect is matched by a freewheeling visual imagination and a fondness for outrageous imagery. He thoroughly indulges that fondness in "Prospero's Books," as he calls his "Tempest," filling the screen with visions ranging from the ethereal and sublime to the vulgar and grotesque, and setting what must be an all-time record for nudity - most of it more pictorial than erotic, reflecting his stated interest in "de-eroticizing" film nudity along the lines of high-art painting and sculpture. Greenaway agreed to do a version of "Tempest" at the urging of legendary actor John Gielgud, who wanted to cap his glorious Shakespearean career by playing Prospero one more time. At this year's New York Film Festival the director reported that Mr. Gielgud is delighted with the results. This is surprising, since Gielgud's performance often seems elbowed aside by Greenaway's cinematics. Admirers of "The Tempest" will find the play's basic elements intact in Greenaway's screenplay. Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, lives with his daughter Miranda, the monster Caliban, and the good spirit Ariel on a faraway island, where they are visited by a group of shipwrecked voyagers from the Duke's former homeland. The movie receives its title, "Prospero's Books," from one of Greenaway's most striking and original ideas - rearranging Shakespeare's text so as to highlight a library of 24 volumes, some of them charmed or magical, that Prospero has taken with him into exile. "Prospero's Books" is a voyage through those mysterious tomes, and also through the mind of Prospero himself, who becomes identical to Shakespeare as he conjures up a story of redemption and revenge under the influence of his cherished books. The cleverness of Greenaway's literary ideas is equaled by his brilliance as a technical innovator, blending cinema with high-definition video in complex layerings of audiovisual material. What's less impressive, much of the time, is the intellectual content of these complicated sight-and-sound constructions. Whole portions of "Prospero's Books" resemble a high-school pageant gone berserk, as scores of picturesque extras parade around the screen with little to do but look exotic. When pulsing minimalist music is allowed to take over the sound track the film becomes effective in an abstract sort of way. But it's less successful as storytelling and as Shakespeare, since Greenaway's pictorial hijinks keep insisting on far more attention than they're worth. He and his collaborators, including cinematographer Sacha Vierny and composer Michael Nyman, have fashioned a vision of "The Tempest" unlike any other. In the end, though, it's too wrapped up in its own hallucinations to communicate as fully and profoundly as one would wish.
Rated R for pervasive nudity.