In an age when the British Royal Family is more of a sick joke than it is a necessary monarchical body, it would seem to follow that many of Shakespeare's regal tragedies (Henry IV, Richard II, etc.) become noteworthy for their historical significance even as they lose their obvious relevance to modern audiences. When the most tantalizing activities require you to read the annotations to the Folger edition in order to understand the importance of some references, the plays lose their currency as social documents and transform them instead into pure literature. (Shakespeare's classical-era plays, like Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, can seem even further removed from contemporary experience.)
Even after taking out the historical contexts, though, Shakespeare remains enjoyable for the handling of the emotional lives so many of his characters lead. The basic human feelings--greed, malice, forlornness--are used to transcend the specific setting and apply in any context. It is when such universal emotions hold center-stage in his plays (rather than the details of plot) that you realize it isn't necessary to know the precise politics of the story; you simply immerse yourself in his poetically crafted web of broken hearts and passionate motivations.
Accordingly, with the possible exception of Romeo and Juliet, probably none of Shakespeare's tragedies deals so straightforwardly in more audience-accessible themes than Othello. Love, jealousy, and pride in their most naked incarnations form the spine of the play, and the historical implications of the plot are subordinate to the complex yet wholly recognizable feelings of the characters. It's a tragedy with the potential to convey great universality.
Naturally, then, this newest filming of Othello (the first since 1965) is a disappointing version, lacking as it does the faintest hint of insight about the essence of the play. This rote rehashing of the plot omits almost entirely the most compelling undercurrents of motivations and themes and replaces them with flavorless sex scenes and simplistic ideas.
Before we've even met him, we learn that the Moor general (Laurence Fishburne) has made the double mistake of secretly marrying the desirable Desdemona (Irene Jacob) without her father's permission, and of naming Cassio (Michael Parker) as his lieutenant, effectively snubbing the bitter ensign Iago (Kenneth Branagh). Under normal circumstances, these actions of Othello would hardly be considered errors, but that's when Shakespeare's genius kicks in. In the person of Iago, Shakespeare demonstrates how a seemingly harmless act, when twisted by venom and acrimony, can be used to orchestrate another's ruin. Using innuendo, treachery, and misinformation, cloaked behind a façade of friendship, Iago plots the downfall of two men: Othello for spurning him, and Cassio for simply being better liked.
Shakespeare was always fascinated by the nature of villainy, and Othello has one of the great villains of literature--not the murderous Moor himself, but the two-faced Iago. Othello may have faults, but Iago's pathology is far more gruesome: He's a sore loser who permits his misunderstanding of the nature of true duty to consume him.
If irrational vengeance overcomes Iago, he also possesses the very self-control Othello lacks. When viewed from the standpoint of Iago, the play is a giant lesson in reverse psychology used to advance an evil deception; seen through Othello, it's also a rumination on the liabilities of pride.
Othello's major flaw isn't his jealousy so much as it is his low self-esteem. He's subconsciously aware of his own weaknesses (played up by Shakespeare with cruel references to his race). As long as he is able to justify in his own mind the rightness of his actions, Othello remains strong; it's only Iago's manipulation of information that sends Othello into a tailspin of declining identity. (Freud could have learned more about reverse psychology by watching Iago's masterful contrivances than he could have ever hoped to from a thousand hours of group therapy sessions.)
Orson Welle's stunning 1952 film interpretation of Othello was firmly rooted in the complexity of emotions. He knew (as does Iago) that Othello's jealousy was merely symptomatic of deeper tremors of self-doubt; once Othello permitted himself to question his own judgment, he became Iago's pawn.
Welles' Othello was thus a wounded dog, gripped by despair upon the perceived betrayals of Desdemona (through adultery) and Cassio (through denigration of his office). The motive for his murder was not her deception but his wounded pride. (When he voices an unwillingness to believe her betrayal, demanding instead "ocular proof," it isn't a rational decision he's made based on the circumstantial evidence; it's a last-ditch effort to cushion the blows to his ego that such betrayal would convey.)
If the legacy of Romeo and Juliet is the adolescent angst of puppy love imbued with a fearsome, respected pedigree, then the churlish conduct in Othello must be recognized for focussing us on the deadly inevitability of prosaic jealousies. The play castigates adults who would behave with the peevishness of a child, and shores up the dangerous consequences.
It would require an usually thick-headed person to take a work so readily applicable to contemporary society and miss every opportunity to deepen our understanding of the characters, but that's exactly what writer-director Oliver Parker has done. His vision centers so misguidedly on making the story erotic at any cost that we're left with a movie that feels like highlights from unrelated collections of scenes rather than a cohesive, unified adaptation of a single work.
Perhaps most remarkably, Parker's choice to sex up the story could have added immeasurably to the palpable racism of Othello. But after hinting that he will exploit that theme, he drops it; political correctness seems to have doomed artists to apologize for their points of view before even putting them forth.
This isn't an interpretation of the play so much as a slavish reading of it; the Lerner-Loewe musical Camelot had more to say about adultery than this version of Othello.
Fishburne is a gifted actor who has sometimes been brilliant (What's Love Got to Do With It), sometimes heavy-handed (Boyz N the Hood). His performance here never overcomes Parker's lumbering take on Othello as motivated by simple anger; there's no subtext to his performance (or the movie itself), making it feel more like scenes leading up to Nicole Brown's murder than a genuine Shakespearean tragedy. (Fishburne's accent, like those of many of the actors in the film, is a comical, unsettling thing, part Scottish brogue, part Boston aristocracy, all out of place.)
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Irene Jacob is especially colorless as Desdemona, forever searching for some emotional attitude to accompany her lines. When she faces the red-eyed anger of Othello, there's no sense of actual fear to her performance.
Only Branagh has fun with his part, playing Iago as a thin-lipped serpent, both droll and sarcastic, seemingly better than everyone around him. On that score he is correct--Branagh is alone among the performers in bringing across an immediacy to the movie--but he's left with the impossible position of shouldering responsibility for the entire film, which never works.
Parker's adaptation is more noteworthy for what it is missing that what it has. You feel he thought that by emphasizing the surface emotions (anger and jealousy) he'd make it more accessible--another O.J. Simpson story, maybe--but the reverse is true. The film is monstrously boring precisely because there are no levels to the characters, no grander vision of their weaknesses. By flattening out the profound aspects of the story, this version of Othello ultimately recalls another Shakespeare play, Macbeth: "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Othello. Columbia Pictures. Laurence Fishburne, Irene Jacob, Kenneth Branagh, Nathaniel Parker. Adapted for the screen and directed by Oliver Parker. Opens Dec. 29.