Othello (1995)

A Film Review by James Berardinelli

United Kingdom/United States, 1995
U.S. Release Date: 12/15/95 (limited)
Running Length: 2:04
MPAA Classification: R (Nudity, sex, violence)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Cast: Laurence Fishburn, Irene Jacob, Kenneth Branagh, Nathaniel Parker, Michael Maloney
Director: Oliver Parker
Producers: Luc Roeg and David Barron
Screenplay: Oliver Parker based on the play by William Shakespeare
Cinematograpy: David Johnson
Music: Charlie Mole
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures

It seems that hardly a year goes by without a new cinematic adaptation of one of Shakespeare's plays, and, of late, Kenneth Branagh's name has become intimately entwined with that of the Bard. While Branagh, who helmed Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and is now working on Hamlet, does not sit in the director's chair for this latest version of Othello, he is very much in evidence on screen in the key role of Iago.

To condense Othello into a reasonable, two-hour running time, writer/director Oliver Parker has lopped approximately 50% of Shakespeare's original text from the screenplay. Yet, even with so much gone, the movie remains faithful to the play's central themes and conflicts, and the streamlined narrative is surprisingly easy to follow (well, as "easy" as anything written by Shakespeare can be). For sheer impact, this Othello can stand side-by-side with the versions brought to the screen by Orson Welles (as restored in 1992) and Lawrence Olivier.

Laurence Fishburn plays the Moor Othello, a gifted general who is commissioned to confront a Turkish army at Cyprus. Always by Othello's side are his two right-hand men: Cassio (Nathaniel Parker) and Iago. However, for reasons that are never fully explained, Iago is not the faithful retainer Othello believes him to be. In fact, hatred bubbles just beneath Iago's cool, rational exterior, and he has put a plan into action by which he intends to cause Othello's downfall and shatter the relationship between the Moor and his devoted wife, Desdemona (Irene Jacob).

Othello's "tragic flaw" is his jealousy, and it's this quality that Iago exploits with his complex scheme. Much of the audience's ability to identify with the characters is dependent upon the trio of central performances that grace Othello. It's an entirely different experience to read the play or see a live performance than it is to view a cinematic rendition. The visual aspects of Parker's production are especially noteworthy. Othello is dark, and makes creative use of light and shadow as only a motion picture can.

Laurence Fishburn, a black actor playing the black title role (in some of his various other film incarnations, Othello has been essayed by the likes of Orson Welles, Lawrence Olivier, and Anthony Hopkins - none of whom are black), gives a stirring and powerful interpretation of a man haunted by uncertainty about his wife's faithfulness. Irene Jacob (The Double Life of Veronique, Red) imbues Desdemona with far more vitality than she has had in any other movie version. Kenneth Branagh, perhaps better focused since he's only acting in this piece, makes Iago a chillingly rational character whose acerbic asides to the camera draw the audience into his plot almost as an accomplice.

Certain Shakespeare purists will probably dismiss Parker's Othello because of its sex scenes and liberal cuts. Such a reaction might be a mistake, however, since this director's view of Othello's tragedy has an unusual slant. Parker is careful to play up the love affair between the title character and his wife so that when the inevitable occurs, it has a more profound impact. When Othello declares, "My life upon [Desdemona's] faith", you believe him.

With this version of Othello, Parker wanted to create a Shakespearean film that anyone could see, relate to, and enjoy - a degree in English literature not being required. In large part, he has accomplished this. Othello has never been one of my favorite of the Bard's plays, but, at times, I found myself engrossed by this adaptation. Using the visual aspects of film to enhance certain story elements, Parker has crafted a fine motion picture.

1995 James Berardinelli

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