78. Tim Blake Nelson’s O [Othello] (2001)
This nugget of a film fell between the cracks of the art house crowd and the teenagers who went to see Save the Last Dance, The Princess Diaries, and Final Destination.
Admittedly, the premise didn’t seem promising: set Othello in a prep school with the tragic hero being not a military leader, but instead the best player on the school’s basketball team. Shakespeare’s story, but not language, is used.
Brad Kaaya’s script, though, more than redeems the premise.
The racial dynamics of Othellocannot seem contemporary if one uses a contemporary setting, as too much of the antiquated Venetian court politics will make the story seem really strained, as was borne out by a 2009 stage production I attended, directed by Peter Sellars and starring John Ortiz as Othello, Jessica Chastain as Desdemona, and Philip Seymore Hoffman as Iago. That production was more interesting than … good.
Maybe my standards for a teenage version of Othello without the bard’s words are lowered, but O has an organic intensity that works like any strong film. The screenplay creates as much as it adapts, replacing Shakespeare’s beats with equally powerful moments of its own. Those familiar with the play will recognize that half of the dialogue is merely a modernized rewording of Shakespeare’s text. This is Kayaa’s only feature script, but the movie is an extraordinary telling of Othello, daring in its vision, but intelligently true to Shakespeare’s own conception of the tragedy.
Russel Lee Fine’s cinematography and Kate Sanford’s editing make a strong film visually, which makes the tragic plot come alive rather than plod along.
If I am writing in generalizations, I don’t want to spoil this film for you, sweet reader.
The acting is top notch. Desi (Desdemona) is played by Julia Stiles, who conveys both a charming innocence and an adult sense of responsibility. The previous year, Stiles was Ophelia opposite—alas and fuck—a hat that was wearing Ethan Hawke, but in O she is opposite Mekhi Phifer as Odin (Othello), and the passion of these two is remarkable.
Our Iago is Hugo Goulding, son of the basketball coach, played to handsomely devilish by Josh Hartnett. And a West Wing-era Martin Sheen plays Coach Duke Goulding.
In 2000, Tim Blake Nelson portrayed Delmar in O, Brother, Where Are Thou?, the Cohen brothers’ adaptation of the Greek epic The Odyssey. In 2001, he directed this overlooked gem of an adaptation of William Shakespeare. It’s not better than Oliver Parker’s Othello, which should be your go-to for a classic adaptation, but O is very, very, very good.
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.