Shrunken Shakespeare

The new movie version of Othello is an Elizabethan soap opera

Director Oliver Parker's new movie version of Othello is a big, beautiful production that overwhelms the Shakespeare play it's based on. The picture jumps with sumptuous imagery, from the opening scene -- moonlight glinting on a Venetian canal and shimmering on the facade of a palazzo -- to battle sequences aglitter with bright swords and blood flowing through tunics. But the visual spaciousness of the film makes the story itself seem pinched -- even silly. Othello may be among the most performed of Shakespeare's plays, but it's far from his best. In fact, it's a bad soap opera whose psychological mechanics are rickety and unbelievable.

Kenneth Branagh plays Iago, the demon star of the show and a study in silk-tongued evil. Branagh takes to his role with a campy relish, cajoling, pouting, rolling his eyes, attacking when necessary. In our day he would be advising mediocrities on their campaigns for president. In the movie, it's not clear why he's up to his lethal mischief. The play suggests that Iago is furious with his leader, Othello (Laurence Fishburne), for replacing him as trusted lieutenant with a Florentine officer, Cassio (Nathaniel Parker).

"I hate the Moor!" he says of Othello early in the film, in one of his many asides to the camera.

He means, of course, that he loves Othello -- is in love with him. Branagh seems to have recognized that Shakespeare's grant of motive to Iago can't sustain his campaign of malice, because he plays the character as a half-closeted homosexual.

True, Iago does have a wife, Emilia (Anna Patrick), whom he dry-humps in his only expression of heterosexual desire. Otherwise, he is constantly in the company of men, sidling up to them, whispering in their ears, resting his hand on their thighs, nearly kissing them. He works mainly by seduction -- without, apparently, understanding the true nature of what he's about. His hatred of Othello drives the picture from beginning to gory end, but such a deep and abiding animosity can only be the product of a passion gone sour.

Branagh certain-ly looks the part of vengeful queen. With his goatee and cropped hair, he's like a guy drawn from a casting call at Cafe Flore. But he resembles Martin Mull a little too much to be taken quite seriously, and his Mull-like mugging and smirking at the camera quickly grow tiresome. Branagh brings a lot of skill and brio to this adventure, but even a queer Iago isn't much of a character. He has no grand conception of evil; he's no Antichrist, just a two-bit devil engaged in nasty pettifoggery for his own sick delight.

He wouldn't get anywhere at all if Othello weren't so cooperatively dim. Fishburne brings a gaptoothed grandeur to the Moor, though it's hard to keep from noticing that, with the heavy gold earrings and trim beard, he looks disturbingly like Mr. T. Fishburne has a rich, chocolaty voice, and Shakespeare gives his character some lovely speeches to deliver -- which makes Othello's denseness that much harder to believe in.

Yet without that thick-skulledness, Iago would never be able to turn Othello against his beloved Desdemona (the ethereally lovely Irene Jacob). He would see Iago's overobvious machinations for what they were. He would not believe, on the flimsiest of accusations, that Desdemona had secretly taken up with Cassio -- especially when she speaks forthrightly of her love and regard for Cassio. A guilty woman would never do that.

But Othello swallows the whole story. He wants it to be true, because it confirms the subliminal suspicion he's had about Desdemona from the beginning of their marriage that she's deceitful and not to be trusted. She deceived her father, after all, to marry Othello.

The giddy love with which Othello and Desdemona open the film can't last. It isn't love at all but sexual infatuation -- that most unstable of human conditions. Love means trust, but that's a high virtue Othello and Desdemona never experience with one another. Although Iago might believe that he's planting a seed of doubt that will grow between them, in fact it's always been there. Mr. and Mrs. Othello are a classic mismatch -- two people who marry across class and racial lines for "love."

In our day they would end up on Ricki Lake, discussing their infidelities, misunderstandings, warped families, and divorce. In their day they settle such matters through slaughter. The movie's climactic scene -- murder in the boudoir -- is Shakespeare at his purest: Everybody dies, but not before giving a final comment. The bodies pile up on the bed, as if in the aftermath of a vampire orgy. Still, one wonders if they didn't have the right idea after all -- putting a firm end to hopelessly fucked-up lives through butchery and suicide, instead of reliving tales of domestic dysfunctionality on 500 cable-TV channels.

Othello is essentially a dark and claustrophobic play, but its governing temper disappears in the movie's epic scope. Oliver Parker seems to think he's filming some sort of Arthurian war, what with the castles and galloping horses and villages ateem with cheering citizens. The big, expensive realism distracts from the narrative problems at hand, but it can't compensate for them. At first the picture moves determinedly enough to command attention despite the psychological clumsiness, but the last third shivers with the desperation of cast and director alike to make the thing feel right. Which it can't, and doesn't.

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