O, Brother, Wherefore Art Thou?

Tim Blake Nelson's new Othello seems to be a man out of time

All the acting is strong, however. Hartnett and Phifer can shine in virtually anything (see the former in Pearl Harbor and the latter in Uninvited Guest), but it takes talent to wrench a good performance from Julia Stiles, and Nelson does it, finally freeing her from the facial paralysis that seemed to set in shortly after 10 Things I Hate About You (and continued through Down to You, Save the Last Dance, State and Main, et al.). She's still a little inhibited with the love scenes (if sexiness is what you seek, go rent the Irene Jacob and Laurence Fishburne Othello instead), but give her time.

Ups and downs: Mekhi Phifer's performance is one of the highlights of this updated Othello.
Ups and downs: Mekhi Phifer's performance is one of the highlights of this updated Othello.

It's too bad the rest of the directing doesn't measure up. Nelson has a weird fascination with shooting scenes through open doors, a device that might seem clever once but swiftly becomes tiresome. The film generally looks like a TV special, with low production values and lots of close-ups (perhaps they blew too much of the budget on those damn doves). And while cutesy references to the source material may work in comedic updates like 10 Things I Hate About You, this would-be tragedy could do without an opera score from Verdi's Otello and a classroom scene in which Hugo, asked to name one of Shakespeare's poems, responds, "I thought he wrote movies." If you're a teen who's never heard the story of Othello before, O might be something you should see. If not, you already know better.

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