This review was corrected on Jan. 27, 2002.
Anyone who buys into the idea that tragedies are supposed to be ennobling should take a look at this contemporized version of “Othello” on “Masterpiece Theatre,” a potently disturbing telepic probably without peer. Setting, language and — most of all — thematic elements of the story are updated as writer Andrew Davies has crafted a believable context for this tale of jealousy and betrayal. Director Geoffrey Sax has found the carefully calibrated sense of inevitable doom, so that when this Othello becomes unhinged, one’s skin crawls with a dreadful anticipation.
Eamonn Walker (Kareem Said on HBO’s “Oz”) plays John Othello, a black officer with the Metropolitan Police in London, and a confident and capable man on the rise. When the police commissioner is taped by a reporter making racist comments, moments after having announced what we in the States would call an Affirmative Action initiative, 10 Downing Street promotes Othello all the way to the top post. The man left behind is Othello’s mentor and best friend Ben Jago — Iago, of course, from the original, played very effectively but maybe with just a touch too much smarminess by Christopher Eccleston.
While it’s not made absolutely explicit, Davies and Sax certainly suggest that Ben Jago has orchestrated the commissioner’s downfall in order to replace him, so having the plan go awry is a particular blow. He immediately sets out to topple his friend and finds Othello’s relationship with new bride Dessie (short, we can suppose, for Desdemona) to be fraught with latent insecurity that can be exploited.
As in Shakespeare’s version, the villain speaks directly to the audience. In this case, he insists from the start that this story is not about politics and race, but about love. Anyone who believes that just can’t recognize when they’re being lied to. The racial issues here are certainly not made melodramatic, but given that this is an English film, it’s a bit less careful, and in many ways more sophisticated, in how it broaches the subject. Othello’s insecurity, as a black man from city streets who has married the white daughter from an esteemed family, comes closer and closer to the surface as Ben Jago convinces him that Dessie (Keeley Hawes) is having an affair with her bodyguard Michael Cass (Richard Coyle).
The handkerchief as melodramatic prop gives way to modern methods of detecting affairs, in this case a DNA test. When Ben Jago lies to Othello about the results, there’s no question what will happen next. There’s nothing redeeming about it — it’s purely horrifying.
Elegantly photographed by Daf Hobson and well-played from top to bottom, this “Othello” is a story with the potential to haunt one’s dreams.