This 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.
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. 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.
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 (Nathanial Parker) over his faithful longtime aide Iago (Kenneth Branagh) sets the latter on a vengeful vendetta.
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. Passionate scenes between Othello and Desdemona are rather hotter than usual. The few crowd scenes, however, look a bit threadbare and awkwardly managed.