Opens: December 1995 | Rated: R
"Othello" is the film Lawrence Fishburne will be remembered for.
His powerful, furious performance as Shakespeare's betrayed Moorish general who kills his wife out of unjust jealousy is far and away the best performance of 1995.
This film, directed by Oliver Parker, is everything Shakespeare should be when put to film -- articulate, concise, and visually striking -- taking advantage of both The Bard's brilliant storyline and the film medium's more personal connection with the audience.
Cut down from the play's four plus hours, this manageable two-hour movie still gives a full sense of time and events left out for the film by using some dialogue as voice-overs between scenes and montage sequences to explain that which does not unfold on screen.
This was made easier by the fact that the play is chock full of monologues and asides put to good use to sum up the deleted scenes.
Unlike Orson Welles' 1952 "Othello," which feels a little chopped up at two hours, this film flows. Those unfamiliar with the play won't even realize anything is missing.
As nearly flawless as he is, Fishburne is in good company in this production. Kenneth Branagh, the modern day motion picture savior of Shakespeare, plays the deliciously evil Iago almost sympathetically. Almost.
He is also a strong Oscar contender here. Iago has much of the dialogue addressed to the audience, and when he snaps his head aside to look directly in the camera, it feels like he's torn himself from the scene expressly to talk to you.
But enough about the performances, here's the story: Winning military general Othello, a Moor, elopes with his love Desmonda (French actress Irene Jacob from "The Double Life of Veronique") against her father's wishes.
At the same time he promotes an underling, Cassio (Nathaniel Parker), over the long-dedicated Iago, who secretly vows revenge and sets out to destroy Othello's life.
With Machiavellian stealth he makes Othello doubt his wife's devotion by manipulating the most insignificant events -- a flirtatious laugh, the loss of a handkerchief -- to seem treacherous. He makes his general believe Desmonda is in love with Cassio.
Othello slowly goes mad with unfounded jealousy and resolves to kill Desmonda at Iago's behest.
The delivery of Shakespeare's dialogue is the key to making this film work as well as it does. The lines are spoken articulately so that each word, each thought, is fully understood and feels very much to come from the characters' hearts and minds. The words are spoken in a conversational manner, not like poetry, as many Shakespeare productions are prone to do.
Usually it takes 10 minutes or so to steady one's ear to the period dialogue in a Shakespeare film or play. No adjustment time is needed for "Othello."
Director Parker has said in interviews that he approached "Othello" as an erotic thriller. It's an interesting vision that adds a level of 20th century intensity to this 16th century drama.
It also earned the film an "R" rating for nudity, but the intensity is applied evenly. The tender looks, the driving passion between Fishburne's Othello and Jacob's Desmonda is as strong an element as Iago's deceit.
The different perspective works. In fact, "Othello" is very probably be the best picture of 1995.
This review appeared in the Daily Republic, Fairfield, CA.
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