Parker's Shakespeare, `90s style

by Milton Lawson

Contributing Writer

January is usually a great time of year for cinema in Houston, as many powerhouse films, which are competing for awards, are released. Studios position some of their best films for release at the end of the year, hoping to keep their product fresh in the minds of award givers and critics who compile top 10 lists.

On paper, this new version of Othello looked like an instant winner: Kenneth Branagh, who knows his Bard, plays the deceitful Iago, and Laurence Fishburne stars as the doomed title character.

Othello was released at the end of 1995 in New York and Los Angeles in order to qualify for awards. This seemed like a last gasp effort, in view of the relentless negative media coverage that plagued the film months before its release.

Before the film was completed, a story was published that criticized this adaptation of Othello because it excises much of Shakespeare's original text. The report even fixed a number to its butchery, claiming that the screenplay cut nearly 70 percent of the play.

The following weeks, after that initial report, offered yet another example of the lack of originality in media coverage. It seemed as if everyone was jumping the bandwagon against this film -- before anyone had actually seen the finished product. Their rally cry was "70 percent!" Yet, just a few years ago, these same media figures were endlessly praising the re-release of Orson Welles' version of Othello, which contains even less of the original text than this new version.

This version was adapted for the screen and directed by Oliver Parker, who does not deserve such harsh criticism for his choices in streamlining the play in order to make a two-hour film. If anything, he should be criticized for choosing to interpret the two major characters in an ironic way, practically reversing the personalities of Iago and Othello. This risk, however, does pay off well at the end of the film.

Othello, the impassioned, jealous warrior, is interpreted by Parker as a kinder, gentler tragic hero; someone who would be more at ease at a tea party than on a battlefield.

Iago, the cold, manipulative traitor, is interpreted by Parker as the most passionate and devoted character in the play.

The most important casualty is that it hurts Fishburne's performance. Fishburne is among the finest of actors, and he gives a good performance, but it is a misdirected one. Parker's ironic twist can best be understood by comparing Fishburne's performance to Welles' classic turn as the doomed moor.

Welles took the passion, rage and jealousy of Othello and howled with fury and anger like a werewolf under a full moon. And the power in his voice brought a sense of authenticity to the rage. Indeed, Welles always had a tendency to be too theatrical in his screen performances, but that style fits the role of Othello perfectly.

Contrastly, Fishburne is directed by Parker to reel in that anger, only allowing it to surface a few times. The best example of this comes near the end of the film, right before the enraged husband is about to murder his wife while sitting at the McDonald's drive-through with Kato. (Uh, wrong story, scratch that.)

Fishburne's performance is saved, however, in the closing moments of the film. As Othello commits the deed, Fishburne is simply brilliant in conveying Othello's tragedy. This is where the irony of Parker's interpretation pays off. When it comes time for Othello to finally murder his wife, the audience is able to believe this is the last thing he wanted to happen. He indeed "loved not wisely but too well."

The major strength of the film, however, is Branagh's performance as honest "Iago." Unlike the character of Othello, Parker's ironic interpretation of Iago fits the film well from beginning to end. Branagh is delightfully evil, cunning and always doing his nefarious plotting, with a wink at the audience, as if to say he knows the audience may be thoroughly enjoying every slimy detail of his well-laid plan of deceit.

Aside from the disorientation those familiar with the play may feel watching the first half of Fishburne's ironic performance, Branagh's sly performance and the powerful conclusion make this new version of Othello a worthwhile cinematic experience. It's no award winner, but it is a good film and a must-see for Branagh fans.

Visit The Daily Cougar