Shakespeare on Film: Othello


Othello (1995)
d. Oliver Parker

Othello looks good for its $11 million budget, with locations in Venice and the Cyprus citadel (in fact Bracciano Castle, north of Rome) decked out in fine, 1570s’ style by Tim Harvey, Kenneth Branagh’s regular production designer and lushly photographed by David Johnson. First-time feature director Oliver Parker, who had played Iago on stage in 1989, trims about 50 percent of the text, delivering an audience-friendly two-hour running time without muddling the play’s clear plotting. When the dialogue is at its most intense, however, he relies too much on close-ups of talking heads, raising the spectre of staid, television Shakespeare.

Parker’s “big idea” was to go further than previous versions in portraying the intense physical bond between Othello and Desdemona, telling interviewers that the play was “an erotic thriller,” and insisting that previous screen adaptations had lacked passion. He shows Irène Jacob’s Desdemona and Laurence Fishburne’s Othello making love after the latter’s arrival in Cyprus and, later, twice presents Othello’s crazed hallucinations of his wife in bed with Cassio.

His script severely restricts the dialogue entrusted to Desdemona, which is both a blessing, since Swiss-born Jacob struggles with verse in what was for her a foreign language, and a shame, because the cuts leave the actress little time to build a Desdemona whose guiltless plight can really move us.

Language also handicaps Fishburne. He exudes hearty sexual swagger and adopts a rich, almost Caribbean accent, but pentameters are alien to an actor more at home in the expletive-ridden worlds of 1990s thrillers like King of New York and he sometimes rushes lines as though trying to spit out something unpalatable. Crucially, he misses Othello’s despairing grief in the final scenes, and one wonders what Morgan Freeman, slipping back into his Moor’s costume from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), might have made of the part. A Freeman Othello would certainly have restored the intended age gap between husband and wife (the Moor laments being “declined/Into the vale of years”; Fishburne is only five years older than Jacob) and been more of a match for Kenneth Branagh’s robust, leather-jacketed Iago. Relishing his first shot at screen villainy, Branagh delivers most of his soliloquies directly to camera, and his brazen running commentary is a model lesson in manipulative evil.

While The Times called this “a fair stab at turning the Bard into a decent night at the multiplex,” other critics were scathing, and neither Parker’s “erotic thriller” hype nor an attempt to generate topical spin by linking the “black husband murders white wife” storyline to 1995’s sensational O.J. Simpson trial could turn Othello into a hit.

100 Shakespeare Films

Extracted from 100 Shakespeare Films by Daniel Rosenthal, BFI Publishing, 2007. Reprinted by kind permission of BFI Publishing/Palgrave Macmillan. To order a copy of100 Shakespeare Films and other books from the BFI Screen Guides series, visit their website at www.palgrave-usa.com.

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