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Starring Laurence Fishburne, Kenneth Branagh, Irene Jacobs
Adapted and Directed by Alan Parker, from the original play by William Shakespeare
The Greeks may have invented the dramatic form but it is William Shakespeare who has written the greatest plays in the language (unless of course you are one of the few who believe that Bill didn't write 'em). Othello has all the elements of a great Shakespeare play. There is love. There is betrayal. There is conspiracy. There is murder. There is lots of murder. There is a brilliant definition of the term "death bed". That being said, I will approach this film version of Othello as I would any adaptation of any book or play to screen. Had I no familiarity with the source (and honestly I haven't studied nor even looked at Shakespeare in twenty years), does what I see on screen make sense? Yes. Mostly.
Briefly: Othello (Laurence Fishburne) is commander of the forces of 16th century Venice. He has chosen Cassio as his "right hand" over that of Iago (Kenneth Branagh), who swears revenge. Through machinations I will not go into, Cassio is indeed stripped of his power and position. Unaware of Iago's hand in his plight, Cassio seeks counsel from Iago. He is told to ask Othello's wife Desdemona, a dear and long-time friend, to intercede on his behalf. On the other hand, Iago weaves a web of deceit so strong that Othello comes to believe that his wife has betrayed him in an affair with the aforementioned Cassio. For their betrayals, both must die. Within that story is the fact that Othello knows that all the eyes of Venice are upon him and his wife. Othello is black. Desdemona is white. They wed in secret, without permission of her father, who warns his new son-in-law "She betrayed me. She may betray ye."
That is a stripped down summation of the adaption by director Alan Parker, derived solely from what I saw on screen.
The bit about jealousy for power was a supposition that, when I looked it up, proved to be just a shade off the mark. Branagh explains it this way: "[Iago] loves Othello, he hero worships him as a great courageous warrior, who has lead him into battle for a decade. Iago feels he deserves to be Othello's right-hand man, and instead Othello chooses Cassio, a man with the right social background and the right social graces. Oliver Parker's theory - and it's one I fully concur with - is that Iago doesn't start out with a calculated plan to destroy Othello. He begins to do wrong and becomes both surprised and intoxicated by the effectiveness of what he has done and can do."
It is important to know that Shakespeare wrote for real people. He did not write for high handed lah-dee-dah Master Thespians (tip of the hat to John Lovitz' Saturday Night Character). It is the archaic English of Shakespeare's day, now several hundred years gone, that forces you to pay close attention to the events on screen. The characters, whose motives and desires are fairly simple, can draw you in and lock you down if the actors have a handle on them.
Of Kenneth Branagh, little needs to be said. He has taken a place as a premiere interpreter of Shakespeare, both as actor and Director. The French actress Irene Jacobs plays Desdemona. That she loves Othello, even as he "puts out the light" (one of many stock Shakespeare phrases that will come popping out at you) is clear. It is the performance of Laurence Fishburne that is dead on. It is magnificent. See it in his eyes. At the beginning, they are filled with the Light of Life and Love. They sparkle. As Iago weaves his web, they darken. They go dead. The manner in which Fishburne holds himself changes. From a man sure of power and purpose, filled by the love of his wife and support and admiration of his men to a hulking brute, dead to the world. His emotions are dead. His only purpose, to redeem himself from the betrayals he believes he has suffered. It may be that because I had to fight my way through the archaic language that I was not aware of watching a good actor deliver a terrific performance. My suspicion is that, had I known Othello backwards and forwards, I would have been whooping and stomping, cheering the performance by the time the curtain came down.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price for Othello, he would have paid . . .
Though he suspects that, had he known then what he knows now, he would have paid Seven. Somewhere past New Years, after the deluge of end of year releases has passed, Cranky suspects that he will see it again.
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