It’s not hard to discern who served as the directorial model for
Othello, the first feature by actor Oliver Parker. Even when his Iago is not on screen, which is not too often, Kenneth Branagh’s fingerprints are all over the film. Parker’s stripped-down, pumped-up Othello takes on Shakespearean tragedy with the same knowing breathlessness that characterized Branagh’s treatment of the big man’s comedy in his sitcom version of Much Ado About Nothing. Perhaps because the fizz is tempered this time by calamity, the recipe works better for Parker than it did for his mentor.
Much has been made of the fact that Othello, a Moorish general in the employ of the Venetians, is here played by an African-American actor, Laurence Fishburne, after having been famously portrayed on screen by Laurence Olivier (in a very stagey Othello) and Orson Welles (in an inventively cinematic one). Parker leaves no racial comment unemphasized, and further underscores the tension with a few closeups of black and white chess pieces. Yet for most of the film Fishburne manages only to be coolly imperious, while his deceiver captures the camera. Indeed, given the liberties that Parker’s adaptation takes with the texthe mostly keeps the lines that can be found in Bartlett’she might have changed the title as well: This Othello could be called Iago.
Parker sets up the tale in such a picturesque blur that he must assume that the audience already knows the plot. Of course, we do, but here’s a brief refresher: Othello, valued in Venice as a warrior but not accepted as a man, causes a furor when he secretly marries Desdemona (Irène Jacob), the daughter of a noble. After Desdemona testifies that she married for love, not because she was in some way bewitched, the nobles accept the weddingespecially since they need to send Othello immediately to Cyprus to battle Turkish invaders. Meanwhile, veteran officer Iago is angered that the general has appointed Cassio (Nathaniel Parker, the director’s brother) rather than himself as his lieutenant. He decides to revenge himself on both men, through an elaborate plot to convince Othello that Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona.
In the final scenes, Parker shifts the focus to Othello’s suffering, and the general’s character reveals added dimensions. Still, his relationship with Desdemona remains sketchy and awkward, in part because the Swiss-born Jacob has difficulty delivering her lines in fluent English. (The exquisite Jacob is best-known for her roles in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s cryptic and hardly chatty The Double Life of Veronique and Red, where she wasn’t required to speak much, even in French.) Both she and Fishburne are compelling screen presences, but in Shakespeare, actors need to deliver lines as well as be iconic.
That’s why Branagh’s Iago runs away with this Othello. According to his press-kit comments, Parker wanted to downplay Iago and restore Othello to “the center of the film.” If so, he failed spectacularly. Iago is at the center, and all around the edges as well. Delivering his treacherous lines to Othello, Cassio, Desdemona, and other dupes, and his genuine ones directly to the camera, this Iago is as winningly chilling as any British-accented movie villain seen in 1995. (Roll over, Jeremy Irons.) Branagh’s performance is far from naturalistic, but neither is it too hammy for the medium. Indeed, he and cinematographer David Johnson are the only major members of the Othello crew who seem to know exactly what they’re doing.
Not exactly subtle and certainly not for purists, Parker’s Othello nonetheless works as cinematic spectaclemore Artaudian than Shakespearean. After a string of directorial flops, Branagh seems to be having a great time overpowering someone else’s movie, and most of the smaller roles are equally well (if less flamboyantly) played. If Parker has utterly missed the point he intended, what he’s accomplished by accident is nonetheless quite entertaining.CP