Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for some Sexuality
Directed by: Oliver Parker
Written by: Oliver Parker
(based on the play OTHELLO by William Shakespeare)
Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Irene Jacob, Kenneth Branagh, Nathaniel Parker, Michael Maloney & Anna Patrick
OTHELLO is by-the-numbers Shakespeare tragedy in many ways. There’s the naïve protagonist with no idea of the sadness that the future holds for him, the diabolical villain who breaks the fourth wall to explain his deeds to the audience, those unlucky victims who get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and acts of bloody revenge. When held next to most other Shakespeare tragedies, OTHELLO pales in comparison. This makes this 1995 film adaptation that much more impressive in turning a lesser tragedy into a good movie that’s enjoyable for those who might not necessarily care for the play.
Othello is a Moorish general known for his great deeds in the battlefield. Though the color of his skin brings prejudice from the very country that he’s fighting for, Othello has fallen in love with a Senator’s daughter, Desdemona, and the two secretly wed. This development pisses off Rodrigo, a gentleman who also desired Desdemona, and opens the door for revenge from the villainous Iago. Iago was passed up on a promotion from Othello for another man named Cassio. Thus, Iago manipulates everyone around him to his advantage and convinces Othello that Desdemona might be unfaithful. These ideas planted in Othello’s head and Iago’s need to keep his true intentions secret can only lead to a depressing demise for nearly everyone involved.
There are two main performances that stand out in OTHELLO. The first being a young Laurence Fishburne as the title character. Infusing a bit of an accent and never once faltering from professional delivery, Fishburne proves himself to be an exceptional Shakespearean level actor. His performance as the inherently good, but easily misled Othello is of such high quality that it makes me wonder how he might have played Aaron the Moor (a villain) in TITUS ANDRONICUS. The best actor/character of the entire film is given to Kenneth Branagh as Iago. At this point in his career, Branagh had directed and performed in multiple Shakespeare productions. In OTHELLO, he’s strictly performing and milks the wickedness of Iago for everything that it’s worth. His villain can fake any kind, worried, or nervous emotions as needed for his sinister desires. Every other cast member and side character is absolutely forgettable though. This sadly includes Desdemona, Othello’s wife, who the viewer should feel some shred of sympathy for. Irene Jacob is just plain bland in her role.
Given the iffy source material, director/writer Oliver Parker adapts OTHELLO with style. While one of his choices doesn’t necessarily work (more on that in a moment), the production values are high. The soundtrack also provides enough momentum to enhance the feeling of the more exciting scenes. Certain pieces of dialogue are incorporated by Iago looking into the camera (at the viewer) or a voice over going through his head as an event plays out in front of him. One interesting addition is that this doesn’t exclusively stay on the character of Iago. As his plan moves forward, a paranoid Othello also addresses the audience and develops an inner monologue as well.
The biggest problems with OTHELLO come from the original play and in Parker’s choice to use excessive sexuality. The plot is predictable, way too predictable. Shakespeare usually threw some sort of irony or twist into his work, whether they be tragedies, comedies, romances or even histories. This is not the case with OTHELLO. It plays out in the most straight-forward and simple sense possible. You know where things are heading from the very start and this makes a longer running time seem like a tad too much! We need to sit through Acts I-IV in which Iago uses those around him and a couple of people die in order to receive the so-so payoff in Act V. Parker tries to spice things up with a handful of sex scenes. These became way too excessive as well and play as an excuse for a quick flash of nudity, including one laughable dream sequence to hammer in a point that every capable viewer should already know.
The plot of OTHELLO is alright at best, but that’s true of the original play as well. The sex scenes are upped to a silly degree and most of the characters are completely forgettable. This being said, Laurence Fishburne is more than capable as Othello and Kenneth Branagh kills it (literally in a couple of scenes) as Iago. The fourth wall breaking and inner monologues are a nice creative touch, especially when Branagh is mugging in front of the camera. Production values are solid as well. Altogether, the good qualities far outweigh the bad. OTHELLO is a good adaptation of Shakespeare’s phoned-in tragedy.