The All Wet Blogathon: “Great Expectations” and “Prospero’s Books”

Over at Encore’s World of Film and TV, Andrew is hosting a blogathon about movie scenes featuring “the splendor of cinematic rain”. Here is my submission.

The rain is such a multi-sensorial experience that visuals alone don’t seem to do it justice. I ended up thinking of scenes that didn’t just show the rain but married it to music gorgeous enough to evoke that exquisite feeling of wet, cool drops falling on your skin and soaking into your clothes, or the even more exhilarating sensation of running through a wall of water.

This scene can be considered the climax of Alfonso Cuaron‘s sorely underappreciated adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations. In one long tracking shot, helmed by genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (before Malick snapped him up), and lushly scored by Patrick Doyle, the camera follows Ethan Hawke‘s Finn (a.k.a. Pip in the original) as he runs through the rain for an impromptu rendezvous with Gwyneth Paltrow‘s Estella. Strings swell over a pulsing beat, the steadicam never wavering past traffic and pedestrians. It’s a scene that’s as technically impressive as it is emotionally moving.

The whole rain scene lasts only up to the 3 minute mark in this clip, and there’s a “dry” portion in the middle, but hang on until 2:51 and you’ll be rewarded with one of the most swoon-worthy rain scenes in recent cinema, even if you’re not a fan of the lead actors.

Peter Greenaway‘s Prospero’s Books isn’t for everyone, especially if you’re a Shakespeare purist, or not into Shakespeare at all. More visual spectacle than film, Greenaway painstakingly deconstructs The Tempest, using its narrative merely as a framework to parade a series of images inspired by the books in Prospero’s library-in-exile. If you’re in the right mood, it’s a stunning experience, one of the most Stendhal Syndrome provoking works of cinema ever produced – a “multimedia” masterpiece made back when “multimedia” wasn’t even a word yet.

Greenaway begins this mad display with a mind-blowing tour-de-force of a scene – a grand tour of Prospero’s domain, and all the fantastical creatures that inhabit it. The “rain” begins (at around the 3:00 mark in this clip) when the sprite Ariel starts to… um, relieve itself, prompting further magical precipitation to fall. Longtime Greenaway collaborator, eccentric musical legend Michael Nyman starts building the soundscape with a driving, almost stabbing, orchestral movement in his unmistakeable minimalist style, propelling the choreography forward as a vast menagerie of naked beings gambol and march across the screen. More and more layers, visual and aural, pile on top of each other, more strings, more images, more wind instruments, more rain, more brass, calligraphy, flora and fauna, sculpture and fabric, and of course Shakespeare’s words as performed by the great Sir John Gielgud, crescendoing in this orgy of dark, disturbing beauty. It’s like something the Sandman would make up in his more creative reveries, and once seen, it may haunt your dreams or unlock your muses. At the very least, the music is a great piece to wake up to in the morning


  1. Haven’t seen Prospero’s Books but the concept sounds interesting. It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen that version of Great Expectations and this post does make me curious to revisit it. Traditionally the rain is such a good blend with cinematic romance.

    • I think Prospero’s Books was the peak of Peter Greenaway’s artistic achievement, he then kind of devolves from there… at least maybe until Nightwatching. There’s “rain” throughout the film, which was shot entirely in a studio. Must have gotten really wet! To its commercial/critical detriment Cuaron’s Great Expectations sort of got lumped together with all the modernized classics that came out in the 1990s like Romeo+Juliet, Clueless, etc. but it really stands apart on an artistic level, unfortunately the script and some of the acting didn’t exactly match the heights of the direction. Cuaron has yet to be as playfully stylish (in a “pretty” sense) again as he was here. He proved he can do gritty action with Children of Men, but I’m hoping he goes back to swoon-worthy beautiful visuals again eventually. Thanks for coming up with the blogathon and checking on my post!

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