There have been several bigscreen “Othellos” over the decades, from those toplining Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier to a 1989 made-in-L.A. indie featuring Ted Lange. Laurence Fishburne’s only previous contact with Shakespeare was reciting the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in the 1980 film “Willie & Phil, ” but he tackles the challenging role head-on and grapples successfully with its eloquent language and churning emotions.
This new rendition of “Othello” takes its place alongside the Mel Gibson “Hamlet” as a pared down, straightforward, respectable screen version of the Bard. Colorful and intimate production is relatively conventional and unremarkable as an interpretation, but is well performed by its two male leads and clearly staged and enunciated for ready comprehension by a mass audience. Cast should attract a certain arthouse audience, but it remains doubtful the film will reach the B.O. levels of Kenneth Branagh’s own popular Shakespearean adaptations, and it will be interesting to see if Sony manages, or even tries, to reach black audiences with this always potent, racially themed drama.
With the text slashed nearly in half by first-time director Oliver Parker, a British actor and longtime Clive Barker cohort who has played both Iago and Roderigo in stage productions of the play, this “Othello” comes off as an elemental tale of passion, jealousy, treachery and murder, with few adornments. Shot in straight-ahead style on Italian locations, it remains intensely focused throughout on the fateful actions of the three leading characters, with the secondary characters and backgrounds shaded in rather than heavily detailed; the essence is here, if not the full weight of the work.
The dynamics of suspicion, jealousy and loathing in 16th-century Venice are swiftly delineated at the outset, as Othello’s elopement with the beautiful Desdemona (Irene Jacob) spurs the resentment of her nobleman father, and the general’s promotion of Cassio (Nathaniel Parker) overhis faithful longtime aide Iago (Branagh) sets the latter on a vengeful vendetta. These personal missions must be tabled momentarily, however, as Venice urgently needs the Moor’s military prowess to battle the Turks at Cyprus.
With Iago confiding his hatred and despicable plans for Othello directly to the camera, the action moves to a garrison on the Mediterranean island, where the triumphant general and his bride are finally able to celebrate their wedding night.
Finding an ally in Desdemona’s rejected suitor, Roderigo (Michael Maloney), Iago begins poisoning Othello’s mind about Desdemona, raising suspicions about her true feelings for Cassio until finally sending the Moor into spasms of doubt and rage that trigger his own murderous scheme.
Eschewing anything fancy from a cinematic point of view, director Parker focuses tightly on the actors and is served well by his two principals.Shaven-headed, bearded and festooned with exotic tattoos, earrings and other jewelry, Fishburne cuts a brooding, powerful figure at first, convincing as a great warrior even if a bit too prone to believe anything he hears. Befitting a general, his heavily hooded eyes always seem to be looking apprehensively ahead for dangers on the horizon, but he’s not able to recognize the greatest threat, his would-be friend, right in front of him.
Actor’s delivery is resonant and clear, and his emotional destruction at the end is rendered achingly through a cascade of tears.
With close-croppped hair and beard and an impulsive physicality, Branagh plays Shakespeare’s most flagrantly villainous character with more urgency than calculation, as if his whole plot against Othello is clear in his mind and preordained to work; for him, it’s only a matter of pushing the pieces around the chessboard until his aims are fulfilled. His performance is confidently conspiratorial, suggesting a man utterly oblivious to grander concerns and morality beyond his specific goals, a large personality and the smallest of men.
Whereas the men sail through the verse with verve and sureness, Jacob, while a lovely object of Othello’s desire, simply can’t get her mouth around the Elizabethan dialogue. The director could no doubt justify the casting of actors from different nations by noting the significant presence of foreigners in Venice at the time (Gabriele Ferzetti as the Duke and Pierre Vaneck as Brabantio , Desdemona’s father, also sport accents), but the French actress just doesn’t have sufficient command of English to hold her own with the men, even with her role cut down considerably from the full play.
Passionate scenes between Othello and Desdemona are rather hotter than usual, and just explicit enough to garner an R rating.
Nathaniel Parker makes for a strongly stalwart Cassio, while Anna Patrick is fiercely spirited as Desdemona’s handmaid Emilia.
Locations have been well chosen, and production designer Tim Harvey and costume designer Caroline Harris make stellar contributions with varied and eye-pleasing work. The few crowd scenes, however, look a bit threadbare and awkwardly managed.