Very much in the tradition of Franco Zeffirelli's 1991 film of Hamlet, in which Mel Gibson did himself proud as Shakespeare's melancholy Dane, Oliver Parker's new version of Othello is a solid and accessible piece of work. This is not an Othello for the ages, nor even -- despite what some critics have written while likening it to the O.J. Simpson affair -- an Othello that's especially relevant for our specific age. But it is an intelligent and entertaining production, one that can be enjoyed even by moviegoers who couldn't tell you the difference between iambic pentameter and Brussels sprouts. Shakespeare, a showman who never hesitated to play to the cheap seats, likely would have approved.
Of course, Shakespeare might have strongly disapproved of the way his text has been trimmed and rearranged by Parker, a first-time feature filmmaker with a lengthy rsum as a British stage actor. (Early in his career, Parker worked for a theatrical troupe operated by -- no kidding -- Clive Barker, the cheeky Liverpudlian now best known as a horror novelist and filmmaker.) Maybe Parker read a few too many reviews of the 1966 Othello with Laurence Olivier and Frank Finlay, a movie that many critics dismissed as hopelessly stagebound. Or maybe Parker was just flat-out determined to make a movie that moved, and so decided damn the purists, full speed ahead. Whatever his motivation, Parker's Othello is busy, aggressively cinematic, stripped for speed and pitched at a full gallop from opening credits to tragic conclusion.
Along the way, Parker occasionally takes time for some unfortunate symbolism involving chess pieces, and indulges in a few other heavy-handed touches to make sure the slow learners in the audience are able to keep up. This is also one of the most frankly carnal productions of Othello ever attempted, and the emphasis on hot-blooded passion doesn't always work in the movie's favor. We get to see a good deal more of the Moor's wedding night than we really should. Indeed, when Parker zooms in for Desdemona's appreciative expression as Othello doffs his clothes, you may find it difficult not to shout rude things at the screen.
On the other hand, Laurence Fishburne -- the first black actor to play Othello in a major motion picture -- manages to bring more than simple movie-star sex appeal to the title role. Granted, Fishburne is noticeably younger than Othello is traditionally depicted, and the savage speed with which he gives himself over to jealous suspicion makes it difficult to fully accept him as the cool, calculating warrior Shakespeare presents Othello as being. But Fishburne is very good at conducting himself with the grave dignity of an outsider among people who don't entirely trust him. And he's even better at conveying the mix of surprise, gratitude and slow-simmering lust that Othello feels in response to Desdemona's love. Fishburne speaks the Shakespearean language with clarity, precision and appreciation of nuance. Better still, he can rage with a volcanic fervor that makes it easy to believe that such a smart guy could be talked into doing such stupid things by the smooth operator Iago.
As Iago, Kenneth Branagh has most of the best lines and all of the right moves. As he has in his own movie versions of Shakespeare -- Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing -- Branagh makes even the most arcane bits of dialogue pulsate with a crystal clear immediacy. More important, he plays Iago not as some malignant monster, but rather as a charming and brilliant rogue who focuses his free-floating discontent into malicious scheming only when he realizes just how easily those around him can be deceived. When Branagh addresses the camera during his monologues, it's as though Iago is acknowledging us as his only intellectual equals. He appears eager to talk to us, to confide in us, simply because no one else can fully appreciate him.
But then again, Branagh's Iago seems every bit as sincere when he confides in the hapless Roderigo (Michael Maloney). "I am not who I am," he tells Desdemona's rejected suitor. He's telling the truth, of course, but it's a truth that Roderigo doesn't fully recognize until it's too late. Unfortunately, he isn't the only one who takes "honest, honest" Iago at face value.
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Branagh's performance, like the movie that contains it, will do nothing to end the centuries old debate over Iago's motivations. It should be noted, though, that even as he repeats the rumor that Othello may have slept with Iago's wife, Branagh makes Iago sound very much like someone seizing upon an excuse, any excuse, to rationalize his skullduggery. In the Othello according to Oliver Parker, it's clear that Iago does what he does simply because he can get away with it -- which, as far as Iago is concerned, is all the motive he really needs.
As the doomed Desdemona, Irene Jacob has the right look of impeccable purity and the right balance of inner strength and teary vulnerability. What she doesn't have is a great deal of ease when it comes to handling English. The Swiss-born actress struggles gamely with her heavy accent, and does manage to make herself understood more often than not. Trouble is, she's least comprehensible during those very speeches near the end of the play when Desdemona should be most heart-rendingly eloquent. Jacob's performance isn't disgraceful -- but it is distracting.
Among the supporting players, the standouts include Maloney as the tragicomical Roderigo, who loves Desdemona neither wisely nor too well, and Anna Patrick, the director's sister-in-law, as the blunt-spoken Emilia, Iago's wife and Desdemona's servant. Emilia, of course, is the one who helps Iago in the matter of the incriminating handkerchief. Like just about everybody else in Othello, she's a basically decent person who is all too easily ensnared in her husband's evil. He is simply too smart for their own good.
Othello. Directed by Oliver Parker. With Laurence Fishburne, Kenneth Branagh and Irene Jacob. Rated R. 123 minutes.