The force of evil in "Othello" has its origin,
"like the origin of everything else in the tragedy, in the character of
its hero," Mark Van Doren wrote. It is Othello who is guilty. Iago is able
to plant his cruel seeds of jealousy only because Othello's character is so
thoroughly prepared to receive them. To blame Desdemona's death on Iago is to
turn Othello into a pawn, and that violates the purpose of tragedy, which is to
show a hero brought down by his own flaws.
best productions of "Othello" show Iago consumed by self-love - by a
narcissistic infatuation with his own villainy. Yes, he supplies Othello with
the false evidence to suspect Desdemona, but much of his performance is put on
for his own entertainment. Iago is jealous not of Othello's woman but of his
power, and he destroys Othello's life almost as an exercise in superiority.
are the human emotional engines that drive Shakespeare's play and that have
made it so powerful for so many different audiences for so many years. They are
at risk in any modern production, where the fact that Othello is black and
Desdemona white is likely to cast a longer shadow than it did in Shakespeare's
just at this moment of the film's 1995 release, with the fates of O. J. and
Nicole Simpson projected like a scrim on top of the screen, it is difficult to
free the play to do its work. To some degree, any modern production must make
Iago the villain and Othello the victim, and suffer as a result.
this production of "Othello" need not have suffered so much. Adapted
and directed by Oliver Parker and starring Laurence Fishburne, Kenneth Branagh
and Irene Jacob (as Othello, Iago and Desdemona), the film gives us a distant,
brooding Moor who seems to have had his tragic fall almost before the play
begins, and an Iago who seems more interested in seducing Roderigo, Desdemona's
former suitor, than in destroying Othello. In enlisting Roderigo (Michael
Maloney) to his conspiracy, Branagh as Iago sets a tone and uses body language
that reads as homosexual; he seems to be in a play of his own.
is not to say Branagh's Iago is badly done; he is the best thing in the movie.
But he makes Iago curiously distant from the main line of the action. Iago is
in love with conspiracy and his co-conspirators, and destroys Othello as a
by-product of his obsession. And Othello, as played by Fishburne, never seems
the truly happy husband and triumphant general the play initially requires, but
seems even in early scenes to be somehow aware of his destiny. Later in the
film, his character consumed by jealousy, Fishburne makes interesting physical
choices, as when his head is so filled with images of adultery that it cannot
remain still, and twists restlessly.
leaves Irene Jacob, as Desdemona, to complete the film's catalog of characters
at right angles to one another. Jacob is a wonderful actress, as anyone who
remembers Krzysztof Kieslowski's "The Double Life of Veronique" or
"Red" will recall. But she is appearing here in a play by
Shakespeare, whose language is so crucial that the scholar Harold Bloom makes a
show of preferring his Shakespeare in text readings rather than stage
performances. Irene Jacob, who is Swiss, is not at home in English, and
certainly not at home in Shakespeare, although she finds a heartbreaking
physical gesture at the moment she is being smothered by Othello: Her hand
reaches out to caress him.
is much better, but not truly at ease, although I wonder if he might not have
been more impressive if he'd been allowed the full reach and texture of
Shakespeare's prose. Parker's adaptation slices and dices the original until
the movie almost could have been based on the "Othello" pages from
Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. With the time he saves, Parker gives us a
distractingly modern soft-core sex scene and montages that summarize offstage
action that the play itself is hardly concerned with. Even worse are scenes
where characters talk unheard under the music on the soundtrack; no composer -
no, not even Charlie Mole - can improve on Shakespeare.
Branagh has had great success with his own films of Shakespeare ("Henry
V" and "Much Ado About Nothing"). He is currently at work on a
"Hamlet" that will star Robin Williams and Billy Crystal - as
Rosencranz and Guildenstern, I hope, not Hamlet and Polonius. He has toured in
Shakespeare and is a master of the cadence of the words, so his ease in the
dialogue acts as a contrast to the others.
readings are diabolical and fiery, but do not, as I've suggested, seem focused
result is a movie that will not give its viewers much of an idea of the
Shakespeare play, and may inadvertently give them other ideas, about
interracial love, that were not much on Shakespeare's mind. Many people seeing
this film will read it as the story of a jealous black man who wins but cannot
trust his white wife, and so kills her. There is a lot more to it than that. In
particular, there is the way Shakespeare uses language to describe and
dramatize universal human weaknesses; either the audience thinks, "There,
but for the grace of God, go we," or the production has not worked. Read