Though faithful to the text of Shakespeare's The Tempest, Greenaway's characteristically dense film could hardly differ more from literal adaptations like Branagh's Henry V. Structuring its motifs around the 24 books Prospero took into exile (as imagined by Greenaway, they dealt with water, cosmology, pornography, ruins, hell, music, etc), the director conveys the arcane knowledge the Duke needs to take his magical revenge. By having Prospero 'invent' the other characters and their lines (all spoken by Gielgud until the final act), he equates him with the Bard, lending the play a modernist dimension as an exploration of creative processes. The movie serves not only as an acknowledgment of the imminent end of Gielgud's career, but as a demonstration of how new technology has expanded film's potential, its superimposed images offering an almost unprecedented complexity of information. To some degree, the relentless proliferation of ideas smothers the dramatic highs and lows, but this is a minor quibble compared to the sheer ambition and audacity of the overall conception.
Cast and crew