Among the many adaptations brought to life by Kenneth Branagh, there is Oliver Parker’s Othello, in which Branagh takes on the role of one of Shakespeare’s most despicable villains, Iago. Along with Branagh, this well-known tragedy is brought to life as a film drama with Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Irene Jacob as Desdemona. Like several other Branagh films, Othello deals with deception and schemes. Angry with the general Othello for picking another man over him as lieutenant, Iago wants revenge. When Othello secretly marries the beautiful Desdemona, Iago begins to drive him mad by convincing him that Desdemona is unfaithful. The story certainly sends a message about the dangers of revenge and obsession, but the eloquence of the text makes it more artistically focused than morally focused.
The film appeals to literature and Shakespeare lovers who are already familiar with the play and would see a Shakespearean adaptation anyway. But like any film adaptation of a classic work, Othello also seeks to bring Shakespeare to a new audience. Whether or not it reaches this audience is questionable. Without a working knowledge of the plot and characters, you’ve really got to pay attention to keep up with all of the intricate plots and tricks. And with Shakespearean dialogue, paying attention can be tough. By bringing Othello to the screen, Parker certainly makes the play more accessible to those who don’t like live performances, but his adaptation does not seek to reach new audiences in the way that something like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) might.
Since they were working with Shakespeare, the cast of Othello had wonderful dialogue with which to develop their characters. Fishburne and Jacob were excellent, brining life and humanity to their roles. Fishburne’s portrayal of Othello’s conflict with the rumors about his wife was especially gripping. Branaghs’ take on Iago is memorable and precise (after seeing Branagh’s Hamlet as well, I’d say that there’s nothing quite like listening to this actor speak in iambic pentameter). However, I almost wished that Branagh took a slightly more evil approach to the character—maybe he’s just too nice looking to hate. As I watched, I lacked the hatred that I expected to feel towards Iago.
Many of Shakespeare’s works are plot driven with twists and turns that often lead to a tragic, though satisfying, endings. Othello is no exception. It is difficult to figure out what is going on in the beginning, how each person is connected and what side they’re on. But the plot soon becomes clear: Iago wants to destroy Othello. The film’s focus, therefore, was bringing such a classic plot to life on screen. Film techniques like flash-backs, close-ups, and framed shots gave the story a dimension that a stage play cannot achieve. As I said before, this isn’t necessarily an inventive or creative adaptation, but it does make good and subtle use of the advantages that film can have.
For the Shakespeare lover, the film succeeds. For someone looking for a way out of reading Othello for an English class, the film succeeds. For an audience that really has no interest in Shakespeare to begin with, they probably won’t find anything new here. If you are very engaged in the dialogue and performances, you’ll find this a riveting motion picture. It carries the weight of classic literature with dignity, and I think it will continue to last as one of the best Othello performances.