The distinction in Oliver Parker's new film version of Othello is that Shakespeare's tragic hero is being played for the first time on the screen by a black actor. Despite seeming out of his depth for much of the proceedings, Laurence Fishburne brings raw, lusty power to the great role, if not much poetry or finesse. But could we really expect Fishburne, who's never played Shakespeare until now, to equal the powerful movie Othellos of Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier? Should he even try?
The real problem with the film lies elsewhere--to wit, with writer/director Parker. Apparently addicted to "invention" for its own sake, he claims to see the play as "an erotic thriller" (the Elizabethan equivalent of Fatal Attraction, perhaps?), and to that end he gives us a couple of steamy bedroom interludes featuring Fishburne and his willowy Desdemona, the lovely Swiss actress Irene Jacob. But, current attention spans being what they are, Parker feels no compunction about shorting us on the actual Shakespeare. He's cut the play to ribbons as deftly as Kenneth Branagh's conniving Iago stabs his best friends in the gut. But if you slash a soliloquy here and excise an entire scene there, what you've got left is Bard Lite--some famous stretches about "making the beast with two backs," "put[ting] money in thy purse," "loving not wisely but too well" and risking "my life upon her faith" that stagger out of poetic limbo with their roots hanging loose.
This seems less a problem for Branagh, who's proven he knows his way around Shakespeare and makes the most of Iago's low-down manipulations, than it does for Fishburne. Detached from Shakespeare's dramatic sweep by Parker's clumsy rewrite, Fishburne never seems to get any firm hold on one of the most gloriously ambiguous characters in all of literature.
Is the Moor of Venice brought low by wrongheaded jealousy? By misplaced loyalty to his treacherous underling? Is there a chance (good morning, O.J.) that the great black mercenary warrior is the victim of the white power structure? These interpretations--and others--all lurk in Shakespeare, but they get short-circuited in Parker, who seems most interested in undressing his stars in just the right glint of candlelight. For all the chances Fishburne gets to plumb Othello's depths, to find his own meanings in the play, he may as well be Ike Turner again, slapping Tina upside the head. He's even got what look like jailhouse tattoos on his shaved head, as well as a formidable "X" etched on one palm: They certainly appear to be contemporary references, but Fishburne doesn't make much of what might have been a kind of New Jack Othello beyond the visual tokens.
If Branagh's swift, fiendish Iago elbows aside the principal with his "double knavery," good Cassio (Nathaniel Parker) and fiery Roderigo (Michael Maloney) come up a little short on screen time. Meanwhile, Jacob's Desdemona virtually disappears into the shadows of her boudoir. The star of Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique and Red has said in interviews that she believes this Desdemona is a "strong woman" and Othello's dramatic equal, but there's scant evidence to support such politically correct rhetoric. If anything, Jacob seems more bewildered by her role than Fishburne, and it's the pivotal maid Emilia (Anna Patrick) who upstages Desdemona in the feminism department with her speech about how the ills of men "instruct us well."
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But this cramped, linguistically stingy version of Othello hardly instructs us at all, despite Fishburne's almost desperate effort and the several dark glories of Branagh. When, in the film's late stages, the great doomed soldier and the foul schemer exchange a hearty soul handshake, it seems to say less about Othello's blind trust or Iago's absence of conscience than it does about the commiseration of two pretty good actors wondering how the hell they got themselves mixed up in an "erotic thriller" in Venice in 1570.