Written and directed by Oliver Parker (based on the play The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice by William Shakespeare)
Oliver Parker's Othello prompts the question if any adaptation of William Shakespeare's Othello is going to be kind of great as long as it's competent, and maybe even if it isn't; I don't want to dismiss Parker's film as not competent, and yet in much the way that you'd only barely be able to tell that Kenneth Branagh's Henry V was his first film, Shakespeare adaptation or otherwise, you'd be able to tell within ten minutes that Parker's Othello was his, and you won't be surprised that in the 28 years since you don't really recall hearing his name. By the same token, you won't be surprised that he soldiered on to carve out a perfectly durable yeoman's career. It's not incompetent, just inexperienced, so that incompetence is always flitting about on the edges and making itself known through directorial choices that, in a mass, get claustrophobic and uncomfortable.
Compensating for this, however, Parker's film has two really terrific strengths; maybe three, in fact, because from a "what shall my strategy be for doing an Othello in A.D. 1995?" perspective, Parker's decision to interpret it as an erotic thriller is an unimpeachable one, and while I haven't done all my homework here as regards Othello's previous film adaptations (notably Olivier's and Welles's blackface ones), and don't have any present plans to do so, I assume that this was novel as far as Shakespearean cinema goes, and while it's so obvious and essential—and so very of 1995—that it's hard to call it genius, it would be a shame if I let it escape our notice completely. But if I said two strengths then you already know what those would be, its Othello and its Iago, insofar as the play is pretty much just the one being mindfucked by the other—Desdemona is a supporting character at maximum, and everybody else is truly a puppet of the plot, which is to say, the puppet of Iago—and so, between the two of them, the characters with the second and third largest parts in Shakespeare's body of work (Iago's being the larger here, and behind only the trivially-obvious champion, Hamlet), it seems to me, not that I'm saying anything insightful here, like maybe the only determinative difference between good Othello and bad Othello is strong performances on behalf of its deuteragonists. And Parker does have those.
So one of those strengths, then, is Laurence Fishburne, whose role even manages historical significance: the history of black actors playing Othello is somehow both longer and shorter than one might guess. It seems to begin in 1822, on the American stage—so, hey, USA, USA. This involves a story reported by a Frenchman that I half-expect is embellished, as it feels both a little fanciful and like it would be better-sourced if it were completely true, regarding a performance in Baltimore where a white audience member interrupted the show's climax to open fire on its Othello. (Then again, there are stories of walkouts of a properly-cast production of Othello in South Africa in 1988, and by that point, surely its content couldn't have come as a surprise.)
So, as you can see, racism has made it perennially contentious: mid-19th century revisionists doubted that Othello was even intended as sub-Saharan in origin because it would have been insuperably scandalous to an Elizabethan audience to behold such miscegenation on the stage—I feel they might be overlooking the basic artificiality of Elizabethan theater and that the 40 year old with coal powder on his face wouldn't have been tongue-kissing the teenage boy playing his wife in any event—and that has, of course, flipped around, so that now if you had even an Arab or Berber play the Moor you'd likely get yelled at, despite Shakespeare's English attaching very little ethnographic or phenotypic specificity to that word; meanwhile, in our later days, Othello has come to sometimes be viewed with suspicion as racist in itself, which I frankly reject. After all, with suitable (not even that many) textual alterations, you could do the story of Othello as an all-white affair, and it could unfold the same way, only it would do so without raising the rather important question of whether a protagonist who was truly integrated into his society would've been treated the way Othello is treated, and, likewise, if this Othello would have ever had such hidden stores of mistrust for that society that Iago's evil machinations could still take root in them. (And the answer, ambiguously enough, is "maybe so, because men can be insane about women wherever they're from.") As for Fishburne—and I will delay discussing the more specific qualities of his performance—he was the first black actor to play Othello in a major film production of the play, and while this unfortunately somewhat erases the black actors (namely Ted Lange and Yaphet Kotto) who'd done so in more minor film productions, that is the kind of thing that should make you stop and ponder.
Well, now that you've pondered, there's that other strength, and of course I didn't mention Kenneth Branagh just because he's also a filmmaker who debuted with a Shakespeare play, though I suppose that might've been enough. But no, Branagh would be our reason for being here: previously, we saw how the actor-director had been badly shaken by the crises triggered by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and, feeling that he'd come to a crossroads in life, he made the seriously-personal In the Bleak Midwinter in response, where, for the first time, the director didn't act. The film was shot in about three weeks; it was, all-in-all, a tiny thing. This freed up most of Branagh's 1995, and while I don't know how exactly he fell into Parker's Othello, I could speculate that you just can't keep Branagh from getting in front of a camera, and that this dovetailed nicely with a yen to do Iago for the screen, and unlike Hamlet, there might not be room for a filmed Othello once every six or so years, so if he didn't play him for Parker, he wasn't going to just go out and make his own some other time. As noted when we discussed Bleak Midwinter, it seems not to have been clear to him in 1995 that he would be allowed to make anything of his own again; and besides, directing yourself as Iago in Othello could get a little weird. Which might explain why Parker, despite having at his disposal a most excellent and experienced director, seems to have been outright barred from ever asking Branagh's advice about God damned anything, so that there's maybe like three things in the movie that feel like anybody's style, and the only time that you might jokingly state, "additional directorial material by Kenneth Branagh," is a bizarre POV shot from Roderigo, who, dying, realizes he has been used by Iago like so many others, whereupon the camera spins on its axis, and it's a piece of film vocabulary that fits in with the rest of Parker's notably stiff, hesitant-feeling movie not much at all.
So this is Othello, which in case you didn't know, is about the Moor of Venice: in 1570, the Venetian Republic has once again found itself at odds with the Turk over Cyprus, and necessarily commends their fate to their greatest general, Othello, once an Ottoman slave, but who years ago joined the Venetian cause and converted to Christianity. Now a soldier of renown, he remains apart from his new countrymen, and such will prove a problem even as he has, perhaps naively, taken what he believes will be a step to closing this divide: Othello has this very night eloped with young Venetian noblewoman Desdemona (Irène Jacob), albeit without the consent or even the awareness of her father (Pierre Venek). This development has virtually deranged her other suitor, Roderigo (Michael Maloney), making him apt to be exploited by Othello's supposed friend, Iago. At the latter's instigation from the shadows, the former effectively makes a go at having Othello lynched; but while Desdemona's testimony, and Venice's need, preserves the marriage for now, Iago has not given up—need he re-tell thee? he hates this Moor—and so he now contrives a far more complicated plan, to convince Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful, giving herself to Othello's lieutenant Cassio (Nathaniel Parker, Oliver's brother), which Iago correctly determines shall destroy him and several other people he also doesn't like. And he would've gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for his meddling wife Emilia (Anna Patrick) and the handkerchief.
By my admittedly incomplete familiarity with his works, though I doubt being encyclopedic about it would change anything, Othello is one of Shakespeare's very best; and while there are other problems here and there, identified over the centuries, which might not even be problems depending on how you look at them, Desdemona's motherfucking handkerchief, and the way the plot turns upon not only its chain of custody, but upon Iago's wife's extremely belated comprehension of its deployment in an evil scheme, is such astounding horseshit that it was identified in pretty much real time, that is, while people were watching its first performances. What did Emilia think Iago wanted it for? Masturbation aid?
Otherwise, though, it's absolutely great, and a text served well by this cast, if not so well by this director. I'd say there's something of a possibility that this Othello, playlike, was shot in script order; it does get better as it goes along, but in fits and starts, and never really quite gels as any sort of aesthetic object. Parker is very visibly constructing this Othello, out of individual lines that form clumps of immobile shots, and it has the most unlikeably noticeable, sometimes plain-old-bad editing, with shots and cuts that exist to service a very primitive idea of how dialogue should be delivered in a Shakespeare adaptation. It is clearly Parker—Tony Lawson is a very fine film editor—but sometimes he doesn't seem to recognize editing as a component art of cinema rather than just some functional thing that puts pictures with the sound, though I guess we have to accept that the main thing he's doing with it is deliberate even if it's faintly terrible. But even besides that main thing, there can be a really poor sense of how film language works—it's not even a dialogue scene, but one of the ones establishing the erotic bona fides of this erotic thriller, but it sticks out sharply in my mind. It's where Othello and Desdemona are about to share their first night together, and it's been close and playfully, nervously sexy and, frankly, for the first time in the film, good, and then it takes us out into this bizarre wide shot from the back of a bedchamber where our principals are about the size of quarters, right before getting back to the nicely-intimate business of Desdemona taking that BMC. The rest of it is so work-to-rule that, in this context, such a perplexingly pointless shot feels like having a miniature stroke.
But I mentioned a big thing, and that's the sheer insensate way Parker is using close-ups, which is compounded by the editing but maybe I wouldn't have even noticed the editing without them. Now, it's an exaggeration to say every shot in the movie is a talking head close-up, for sometimes there are two people in the close-up. But I'm not sure it would be an exaggeration to say half are either singles or two-shots done in close-up, and that very often they don't feel framed quite right, with the face or faces pushed way up into the foreground, made so aggressive by default that to do actual aggression, like Iago's venomous first direct address, Parker practically has to put his camera up Branagh's nose. It's actually worse than "filmed stageplay"—this is boring and static and aggravating—and while there are a few bits where focus and negative space is used in conjunction with these close-ups in ways that heighten character relationships, the constancy of it surrenders an infinite number of opportunities for depth and blocking, or even just characters looking at one another in interesting ways, which even a proscenium scheme would have exploited purely upon the basis of actors standing next to one another, something one is often very unsure is actually happening in this Othello. (On his commentary for his Hamlet, I was amused to hear Branagh describe close-ups as something one ought to be "economical" with. And Branagh isn't abnormally economical with close-ups!)
Not everything visual about it sucks—way too much does—but not even everything about the editing sucks: there is, anyway, at least one truly inspired idea; in Othello's self-lacerating fantasy of Desdemona's adultery, a shot of clasped hands we'd seen much earlier, in that aforementioned sex scene—which is a cliche, but a perfectly nice cliche that I happen to always like—gets echoed into this imagined tryst with another man, emphasizing Othello's torment at the thought of losing her (perhaps never even having her), not merely at some notional damage to his honor, and it's terribly clever, in a readability that would survive being taken out of this montage altogether because you're not very likely to mistake Nathaniel Parker's hand for Laurence Fishburne's in any case. I will reiterate that it does get better, generally—Oliver Parker seems to have watched a movie for the first time halfway through, and realized that they are, in fact, mostly medium shots—and there is a rather nice bit of floaty editing through the subtle psychological judo of Iago's "nor for my manhood, honor, or wisdom to let you know my thoughts!" manipulation of Othello, where this single conversation hops across three settings so that it feels like we've spent an entire afternoon of the subject being continually brought back up by anxious Othello, that I would likewise cheerfully describe as "a pretty great idea." It's a shame that these are embedded in a lot of bad ideas, or non-ideas.
Which is true, too, of the aforementioned saving graces, Fishburne and Branagh. I do disagree with the decision here to pluck just one motivation out of the constellation of motivations that swirl around the unknowable pit of hate that is Iago—Branagh cries upon relating to us that he believes Othello has fucked his wife—and I would have to assume that's Parker. It's not a crazy-person choice, I suppose, it's thematic, and it doesn't even matter, because it's one Branagh undoes within moments anyway, practically in the same soliloquy and by no later than his next scene, rendering my preferred Iago, a malign charmer with a shockingly profound understanding of human frailty. He is basically outright cosmic in his resentful contempt—an archetypal trickster, the snake that bites because it is a snake. The play is about racism, but Branagh's Iago suggests he scarcely cares except that it's one more thing to giddily exploit on his way to destroying a man he probably has no real reason to destroy. Branagh's Iago is therefore more than a little Hitchcockian (or, for that matter, Ricardian): charismatic and irresponsibly thrilling, and, offered numerous direct addresses to the audience by the text and providing a rationale for at least his close-ups, he invites you to partake in his chaos. This certainly isn't reinventing the wheel, as I understand the wheel, but Branagh spins 'round real damn well, and being asked to take pleasure in Iago weaving his little web will always feel dangerous.
I'm not interested in declaring which of Othello's leads is "better"—both are essential—but if I were, Fishburne might win on points, inasmuch as one would prefer to place Branagh on a curve considering his deep experience, and Fishburne hadn't done Shakespeare since high school. (I've seen it said he lacks facility with the language, but I didn't notice, and it wouldn't matter much, and might even be fitting, for this character who says he lacks facility with the language.) Anyway, maybe it's a boon: he strides into the part and emphasizes what makes Othello interesting, which is that Othello is an asshole, someone who trusts men so much without realizing that he's only ever been able to because he's had power over them, but trusts women so little he thinks he'll be betrayed within days by a wife who, frankly, risked her community's hate (possibly her very life) to marry him.
He handles the whole compendium of cuckold psychology Shakespeare puts in Othello's mouth: the way the possibility gnaws, almost physically, upon him; the surprised realization that he'd really rather not have ever suspected even if it were true; the way he permits himself to believe Iago's insinuation that the white woman has but fetishized his skin and will, by law of nature, abandon him when the novelty is gone; the way he fixates on it and, with Parker's assistance, conjures it in his mind; the white-hot rage, and the sorrowful kind that climaxes his tragedy, where the imagery of hands comes back in a terribly heartbreaking way. Basically, Fishburne knows that, at bottom, this is a play about the insecure station of masculinity. I'm not fond of Parker favoring Fishburne with a handful of fourth-wall breaks of his own; it muddles the idea that Iago is the author of this misery. But then, there was always something in Fishburne's Othello that could author this himself, and while without Iago it may not have been awakened, we can't know that; and this might be an even more dangerous approach to Othello than Branagh's audience-implicating chumminess with Iago. Practically all these different modes seamlessly merge in what might be Fishburne's best actor's reel scene here, staged so that he almost suffocates Iago, but, so far as he is yet aware, only for being his faithful servant—an irony, then, or maybe not. Between the two of them, it's kind of a great Othello after all.