It's no exaggeration to say that Kenneth Branagh has made Shakespeare a player in the movies. Branagh's two Shakespearean films as adapter/director/star--a rousing Henry V and a sunny, blissfully humane Much Ado About Nothing--transcended the Classics Illustrated style of Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet.
Branagh's films were in no way daring; they both were mainstream interpretations of their texts, but, at least, they were interpretations, notreductions. They were for grown-ups. And because Branagh shaped them not as "kulchoor," nor as condescending educational tools, but simply as exciting movies, people went to see them--often more than once--not to be taught or enriched, but simply because they liked them.
Now Branagh stars in adapter/director Oliver Parker's new version of Othello, the Bard's great tragedy about sexual jealousy and interracial marriage. Branagh plays Iago, the villain who acts the role of the worried friend while secretly scheming to ruin the happiness of the title character, a blackamoor, and Othello's lovely white wife, Desdemona.
Pity Branagh wasn't also behind the camera. Like Zeffirelli, though not so amateurishly, Parker bangs through the play so fast that he guts it of emotion.
The story, which Shakespeare adapted from an account in Cinthio's Hecatommithi, is familiar: Othello, a respected general in the service of the Venetian government, marries Desdemona to the displeasure of her father, a senator. Iago is Othello's ensign, and secretly bears him a variety of vague grudges of pathological intensity. Pretending reluctance to bring it up, he plants the suspicion in the Moor's mind that Desdemona has cheated on him with an officer, another of Iago's enemies. Iago then orchestrates the circumstantial evidence to persuade the naive Moor of this.
It's been a perennial favorite on the English stage since it was written--it was one of the first plays revived when the theatres were reopened after the Puritan regime, and it was one of the first plays performed in America. It's also been frequently filmed: Orson Welles made a 1952 version of stern fairy-tale grandeur, while a 1965 performance film captured Laurence Olivier's famous self-directed stage production. Elements of the plot even showed up in Internal Affairs, Mike Figgis' erotic cop thriller of 1990.
Oliver Parker's speedy version isn't a disgrace. For about the first hour or so, before the situations turn dark and grim, it's pretty good--the atmosphere is lush and sensual, and the leads' performances are promising. Sadly, of the three Shakespearean roles that Branagh has essayed onscreen--Henry V, Benedick and this one--Iago is by far the greatest, and the performance by far the least successful.
It's not that Branagh isn't up to the role. In the earlier scenes, as he slyly lets the audience in on his wicked intrigues, he's energetic and engaging. But Parker's adaptation, which pares the text enormously, cheats Branagh of his chance to show us a great Iago. There's never a moment where we're confronted with the full, inexplicable evilof the character--there's never a moment where this Iago scares us.
The same could be said of the other two stars. Laurence Fishburne is being called the first black actor to play Othello on film. This isn't quite true--an extremely obscure, low-budget version from the '80s was directed by and starred Ted Lange of The Love Boat (I've seen clips fromit which suggest it's probably better left obscure).
Fishburne is an unshowy good actor, virile but not just a stud, brawny but not a mere hunk. His Moor is perfectly plausible as a fine soldier and a goodhearted, genial man with a woefully wide streak of gullibility. But it's not an inspired performance. It's the final scenes, with their naked grief and rage, that elude him. As for Irene Jacob, the gorgeous Swiss model who starred in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Red, she comes across pleasingly enough as Desdemona in spite of her accent, but the role is so abbreviated that she seems little more than a McGuffin.
Those final scenes, in which Iago's schemes come to horrible fruition, are the root of this Othello's ultimate failure. Neither Parker nor the stars can find a way to clobber us with the full horror of what's happening. Yet the depth of emotion in this finale is what elevates Othello from being a splendid melodrama to being one of the greatest plays ever written. If, at the end of the play, the performances don't leave us shattered, then what we've seen isn't much more than Internal Affairs plus superb poetry.
Nathaniel Parker of Wide Sargasso Sea is serviceable as Cassio, the framed officer, but only one of the supporting players is really memorable. Willowy, sharp-faced Anna Patrick, as Iago's wife, Emilia, steals the finale from the stars with her excellent underplaying of her outrage as she, before anyone else, figures out what her husband has done, and witheringly excoriates the Moor for his foolishness.
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It's inevitable that, for contemporary audiences, any version of Othello must invoke the O.J. case--a formidable black man, accepted into a monied white society, murders his beautiful white wife. But this, too, is reductive to Othello. When race is put aside, the similarities between the two cases become superficial--irrelevant to O.J. if he were innocent; grotesquely overgenerous to him if he were guilty.
Othello: Directed by Oliver Parker; with Laurence Fishburne, Kenneth Branagh, Irene Jacob, Anna Patrick and Nathaniel Parker.