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Othello (1995)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 2000

A half-hearted attempt to update Shakespeare's classic examination of jealousy and betrayal, this incarnation of Othello has little to recommend it. On the shadowed canals of Venice glide two gondolas, conveying separated Othello (Laurence Fishburne) and Desdemona (Irčne Jacob). Their rendezvous on this night has a secret purpose, to bind them in marriage. Unfortunately, however, both Iago (Kenneth Branagh) and Roderigo (Michael Maloney) observe the elopement and ceremony. Since the latter is one of Desdemona's failed suitors, Iago finds it easy to arouse his ire. Together they alarm Ferzetti Brabantio (Pierre Vaneck), Desdemona's father, nourishing his indignation over the illicit match.

In the Venice council chamber the city Senators, headed by the Duke of Venice (Gabriele Ferzetti), are in late session. Cyprus is on the agenda; specifically they must decide how to deal with the Turkish fleet even now bearing down upon the island. To be sure of victory they must dispatch their most able commander, Othello. Thus his deputy Cassio (Nathaniel Parker) is dispatched to bring him hither, on a collision course with Brabantio. Together they arrive in the hall, aware only of their own selfish conflict; once Othello was a dear friend to Brabantio, welcomed into his home and treated as a brother. Now, though, in an instant there is enmity. Only the Duke can restore harmony, freeing Othello up so that he can set sail in the morning.

Given that the director of Othello, Oliver Parker, has established himself on the stage, some theatrical flair might be expected to light his adaptation. Curiously though he takes a different path, reaching out to a modern audience by making Shakespeare agreeable to their palate. Hence there are scenes of softly lit sex, sword fights and a stirring score (which occasionally drowns out the dialogue). All wonderful in their place but here they lead you to a single conclusion; that Shakespeare is not up to the task of riveting viewers to their seats! Why else would Parker gut the full text so haphazardly, lifting familiar passages without listening to the underlying dramatic flow? Much of what he keeps should have been eliminated early on, yet here it lingers to drag Othello into a surprising mediocrity. That Parker falls is not down to any lack of ambition, more a failure to grasp just what a literate cinema audience wants from a play like Othello.

There are, however, two elements which ensure that this Othello is not a total washout. The first of these is Shakespeare's prose, fluid and delicate even when eviscerated. Spun from threads of devotion, loss and hatred, the plot wraps itself around the characters and the faces that they show to the world. At the heart of the play Shakespeare merely gives Othello flaws and Iago the means to exploit them; what's special is the complexity that he draws from such a simple kernel. The second aspect is Branagh, cast excellently as the scheming Iago. Here Branagh wins on two counts. Professionally he is the most talented Shakespearean in the film, by virtue of experience and an understanding of the text's rhythm and pace. Personally Iago is the most compelling figure in Othello, a master at twisting other people to do his bidding while pretending to aid them. Everyone loves him, with the possible exception of his wife, yet he deceives and uses all. We can see Iago's pernicious behaviour from the outside and still his unrepentant manipulation appeals.

It's with the remainder of the troupe that Parker has difficulty, simply because they demonstrate no feel for Shakespeare. Their delivery is precise, well enunciated, rigid and thoroughly unemotional; there's no sense that their characters mean what they're saying, more that they're reading from an autocue. True, many relax in the second hour and begin to spark in their speech, yet by then the damage has been done. Only Branagh seems truly comfortable with the dialogue, while Jacob performs like a zombie (regardless of the fact that English in not her mother tongue). As a result the heady lust clasping Othello and Desdemona doesn't transmit, leaving Othello bereft of flair or passion. No wonder the tragic pointlessness of their end loses its devastating impact here.

Parker does, fortunately, make some use of his chosen medium. Location filming makes Othello look very pretty and adds interest, though his use of the environment is uninspired. A few cinematic tricks are also brought in, obvious but not blatantly so; thus a montage of images fills Othello's fevered mind, Iago gets to talk directly into the camera and, notably, Othello is actually black. On the whole though the production makes poor use of these enhancements, yet at least they exist. Without them the pictured action could easily be occurring on a stage. Overall Othello is a pale, stolid and unremarkable adaptation that loses much by being squeezed into two hours. It's an average film that's far removed from the violence of a decent theatre performance; only occasionally can the power of Shakespeare shine out.

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