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Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

#15. Othello (1995)

Othello poster

If we can agree, dear readers, that Olivier’s Richard III (1955) is both perfect and, in its own way, a bit old-fashioned, Oliver Parker’s Othello (1995) manages to treat the tragedy realistically, with some degree of historical accuracy and dramatic poignancy, so that the story seems timeless, which is a feeble word we use to describe work that feels simultaneously old and terribly relevant.

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Let’s begin by talking about the casting of the ever-underrated Laurence Fishburne  as the title character (five years before his first turn as Morpheus in The Matrix). Parker’s Othello is now 21 years old, so it bears observing that this was the first time that a black actor was cast as Othello in a prominent feature film. We were spared the grotesque spectacle of seeing a white actor such as Orson Welles (1952) or Laurence Olivier (1965) in blackface.

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Visually, Fishburne offers a legitimate case for why Desdemona would fall in love with him despite the absolute opprobrium of her father.

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As a Hollywood film actor, he manages the difficulty of the text perfectly, and makes the play the sublime experience it is meant to be.

Othello is a Moor, and since we don’t quite know exactly what a Moorish accent sounds like, Fishburne goes with a somewhat eloquent Caribbean voice, with some Arabic accents added, so that on a linguistic level, his cultural otherness is expressed by his very voice. The court of Venice spoke with believable Italian accents (not to be confused with whatever Paul Sorvino was doing in Romeo + Juliet). The courtiers and soldiers speak with English accents. By having his actors make such precise choices with some logic to them, Oliver Parker’s version of the play has a vocal texture that seems intoxicatingly real, unlike the motley casting in the Shakespeare films Branagh has directed since Henry V.

Iago

And if we are spared Branagh the director, we are treated to Branagh the actor, one of the best actors in the history of cinema, giving perhaps his best performance as the tortured Machiavellian officer Iago. It’s hard not to root for Iago, who takes such pleasure in his evil schemes, in his own thoughtful soliloquies, in his insults. (Othello has Shakespeare’s sharpest insult, by the way: “You are a Senator!”) Branagh gives him the occasional mugging for the camera, as if we are confederates for this virtuoso performance.

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As the plot promises to grow more bloody, Iago, like any great liar, appears to believe in his own lies. Perhaps he does.

For writers, Othello is a remarkable study in the craft of characterization. What makes this play the greatest of Shakespeare’s tragedies–in your rogue’s infallible opinion–is how much we understand and care about all of the characters, including Iago, despite the fact that he will not explain himself for his crimes. This story shows us how frightening it is to define ourselves as others see us, when others overlook us, and how love is, for so many people, the most destructive force in the world.

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Certainly, these themes appear in Macbeth and Richard III, but the naivety and stupidity of many of those characters make me less filled with dread in the watching. The tragedies in those two plays seem too inevitable, people functioning themselves and one another to death. Macbeth in particular I have to be tricked into liking.

Even Desdemona, Job-like in her willingness to suffer, enters into the final night of her life with open eyes. She would rather risk whatever violence he intends than dishonor her love for him. By strangling her, Othello knows on some level he is destroying himself, too.   This is the metaphysics of love–we overlap into another person, and sacrifice part of ourselves to it. Of course this could seem like average codependence, too, if you are cynical.

Oliver Parker’s Othello is a masterpiece. It is fun and heartbreaking. As compelling as a devouring rose.

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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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