10 August 2009

Othello (1995)

Othello Risqué and Relevant
By Kristin Battestella

My sister is an English teacher. When she called me up with her annual teaching Shakespeare moan and groan- this year was Hamlet-I told her she should do Othello instead. As an introduction, I suggested this charming 1995 adaptation from Oliver Parker with lovely details and an exceptional cast.

Othello, the Moor of Venice (Laurence Fishburne) has secretly married Desdemona (Irene Jacob). Jealous of his master’s happiness, military success, and power, ensign Iago (Kenneth Branagh) plots to destroy Othello’s marriage. Using his own wife Emilia (Anna Patrick) and Desdemona’s former suitor Roderigo (Michael Maloney), Iago discredits Othello’s Lieutenant Cassio (Nathaniel Parker). Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair, thus setting about a deadly chain of events.

To say Othello is about a man who is jealous because a pretty white girl marries a successful black man is an understatement. It’s wonderful to see Shakespeare wrote of such scandals of race, culture, and religion four hundred years ago, but Othello is deeper than our modern conceptions of racism and corruption. Whether Othello is actually black or not, whether he is a moor in the service of Christianity or not-these are only part of the tale. It’s beautiful and yet somewhat frightening and sad that there were twisted people then as there are now. Othello is an examination of what power, jealousy, love, and deception can do. It’s analysis of envy, rumors, and backstabbing transcends time, religion, and race.

Iago is a piece of work, isn’t he? Like our unreliable narrator in Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, ‘why will you say that I am mad?’; Iago’s contention that he is not the villain of Othello says more about his jealous deeds than the actions themselves. Branagah’s onscreen asides break the fourth wall and draw the audience into his plots and schemes. We might wonder how one lowly man could ruin so many; but after Iago’s soliloquies to the viewer, we’ve no doubt he’s thought long and hard in his deception. The play may be called Othello, but Iago is the Vader who sets our tragedy in motion. Long associated with Shakespeare via his directorial opuses As You Like It (2006), Hamlet (1996), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), and Henry V (1989), Branagh shines here, yes, as the villain. He’s so calm and just in his own mind, and Branagh almost convinces us that his malicious intentions are true.

OthelloAfter seeing Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix) as the titular Moor of Venice, it’s tough to imagine anyone else in the part. Fishburne has the talent, stature, and onscreen presence needed for the extremes of Othello’s nature. He’s big, badass, and black; but the Shakespeare talketh rolls off his tongue. Fishburne doesn’t look and sound as if he was a hip, up to date, stereotypical brother plucked from the hood, and it’s refreshing that no modern hang-ups have been used here. Fishburne makes us care for Othello. He’s not merely a wronged black man, he’s a jealous husband manipulated into his own downfall. We’re happy when he’s happily wed, we share in his military victory-but we nevertheless fear him when Othello turns his might to passionate, murderous rage. And, of course, we’re also kicking him for falling into Iago’s plot. Fishburne is wonderfully intelligent, but blind. When his Othello starts having maniacal asides with the audience, we know Othello will not end well.

French actress Irene Jacob is a delight as the charming, if minimal Desdemona. We don’t see much of her true self, instead naughty visions of Othello’s assumed deceitful wife. Nevertheless, Jacob adds subtle changes between the adoring wife and the imaginary vixen. We see a beautiful woman who only has eyes for Othello, and yet, there is a seed of doubt in her defense of Cassio. Likewise, Anna Patrick (Rome) wavers between Desdemona’s loyal maid and Iago’s deceptive wife. She’s not so bad, is she? She only wants her crooked husband to finally see her, right? Too late, Emilia sees the truth about her husband.

The exact year of Othello isn’t given here, but we can deduce it’s enchanting mid to late 16th century era through the costumes and Italian locations. History buffs surely understand the status of Moors, Venice, and the Turks, but uninitiated viewers can easily slip into Othello’s atmosphere. Everything looks so pretty-too pretty. We know the opening music and parties won’t last. Writer and director Oliver Parker (An Ideal Husband) also skillfully keeps his visuals uncluttered and stage-like. A fine location and two actors are all Othello needs to tell its tale. Fortunately, the men also look perfectly medieval with their swords, doublets, and cloaks. This is a most serious picture, and there are no puffy shorts or silly hats to make us laugh away from the story at hand.

Naturally, what’s so great for Othello also works against it: American audiences probably grown when they hear Kenneth Branagh’s name, feeling as though they are in my sister’s high school English class studying Shakespeare all over again. Though well played and a dang fine story, Othello is also so dang serious and extremely heavy. There’s no lighthearted break in sight. Beautifully written and full of charming Shakespeare talketh, yes; but, if you’re not in the mood for such superfluous, iambic pentameter speech you can’t watch Othello. All this heavy also makes this particular play incomparable with tweens and prudes. There’s some skin and bedroom scenes-which really aren’t that bad-but there’s also kinky medieval innuendo. Tweens and younger simply can’t appreciate Othello’s intricate themes of love, jealousy, rage, and betrayal. And about those prudes, if you don’t like talk of torrid affairs or fair little white girls lying with big bad ass black men, then Othello is certainly not for you.

I could spend more time talking about Othello. Scholars and Shakespeare fans will of course enjoy this adaptation, but period piece fans and fans of the cast should tune in as well. Even those not fond of Will and his speaketh can enjoy this tragic tale of love and deception. Othello isn’t your schoolbook Shakespeare-I really should warn my sister!

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