O, Brother, When Art Thou?

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

Hartnett's Hugo does get the best sorta-Shakespearean dialogue, adapting "Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: From this time forth I never will speak word" to "You don't ask me nothin'; I did what I did and that's all you need to know." Phifer is less lucky, stranded with lines like "They don't know who they fuckin' wit'" and "I can say 'nigger' cuz I am a nigger. You can't cuz you ain't." Glad we cleared that one up.

All the acting is strong, however -- the film's biggest strength. 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.

Jumping through hoops: Shakespeare's latest makeover tries its hardest to convince us that it's relevant.
Bob Basha
Jumping through hoops: Shakespeare's latest makeover tries its hardest to convince us that it's relevant.

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Rated R

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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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