Nothing comes between two people’s love, like one person’s jealousy.
Shakespeare is a tricky proposition. Go the “verily and forsooth” route, and you alienate the young masses. Trip it new school, and all the theater wonks will pooh-pooh your attempts at modernization. What’s a writer or director to do? That’s the dilemma that faced director Tim Blake Nelson and first-time screenwriter Brad Kaaya when they developed O, which takes the Bard’s “Othello,” pulls it into modern times, changes the setting, and sets it to rap music. What’s the result? Read on!
I will freely admit that I am not a student of Shakespeare. I have read a number of his sonnets, because I’ve always loved poetry, but I’ve never had an interest in theater (you know, production theater, not movie theater), so I’ve never been drawn to his plays. I’ve seen the Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson version of Much Ado About Nothing, and a stage production of “All’s Well That Ends Well” at the Oregon Shakespearian Festival, and a little of Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, but I think that’s about it. Oh, and I did see Shakespeare in Love a couple times (cue groans from the audience). I had to find a Cliff’s Notes style guide to the play online to get an idea of the plot of “Othello.” This is all just to let you know that you’re not dealing with a rabid fan of the Bard here.
“Othello” is, along with “Hamlet,” one of Shakespeare’s most famous and most filmed tragedies. A title search at the Internet Movie Database shows over 20 different productions (though that does include one also known as Othello, The Black Commando…it starred Tony Curtis, no less!). One of the most recent starred Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago.
While most previous filmed productions maintained the play’s setting and dialogue, O supplants the key elements of “Othello” into not just the modern era, but with new dialogue, new character names, and with a new setting. Instead of the military during a war, here the backdrop is a prep school basketball team on the way to the championship. Odin (Mekhi Pfifer, Soul Food), standing in for the titular Othello, is the team’s star player. Instead of choosing Cassio as his lieutenant, he chooses Michael Casio (Andrew Keegan, Independence Day) to share the glory of the Most Valuable Player award. This incenses Hugo (Josh Harnett, The Faculty), standing in for Iago, the play’s villain. With the help of Roger Rodriguez (Elden Henson, The Mighty Ducks), this production’s version of Roderigo, and aided by his girlfriend Emily (Rain Phoenix, sister of River and Joaquin Phoenix), this production’s version of Emilia, he seeks to discredit and ruin Odin. The catalyst for his ruin is his white girlfriend Desi (Julia Stiles, Save The Last Dance), standing in for Desdemona, Othello’s bride-to-be.
I suppose the question is at this point: Does it work? Does it make for a good film to bring Shakespeare’s story into modern terms. Yes…and no. Yes, because Shakespeare’s stories have a timeless quality to them. Yes, because the production of the film and the acting are both first-rate. No, because…well, first the good points.
I am in complete awe of a writer who could craft stories that could easily be transported into any milieu and still work (other than a few problems, which I’ll note in a moment). They may be great writers, but do you think the stories of Stephen King or Ellmore Leonard will have that timelessness that will enable producers of film or theater in several hundred years to craft their works into their modern setting? Not bloody likely. No matter what the trappings of other details shape it as, the story of “Othello” is at its core a tale of jealousy and betrayal, of the lengths to which love and trust can drive you. Everyone knows the joy of pure love. Everyone knows the ache of trust falling to pieces. The setting could be a space station, or the players rodeo clowns, and the pieces of Shakespeare’s eternal storytelling would work equally well. O may be considered a bastardization by the Shakespearian faithful, but the simple truth is that the new setting, the modern characters, the common vernacular of our day…they all work to convey the same emotions that have moved readers and viewers for centuries. If for no other reason, O is worth watching to see yet another way this story can be expressed.
Those of you who thought the name of director Tim Blake Nelson sounded familiar might remember him best as one of the trio of escaped criminals in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou? He’s not just a dumb country boy, though, because with O he shows considerable talent as a director. He doesn’t have the visual chutzpah of the Coens, though he does show some artistic flair with his camera choices. What he does bring to his direction is an actor’s flair for bringing out the best in his cast. His younger cast members give the best performances of their careers. Especially impressive is Josh Harnett. Now, here’s a guy who has to date mostly appeared in teen-oriented horror (Halloween H2O) or romance (Here On Earth). Lately he’s tried to step out, like with Pearl Harbor or Black Hawk Down, though I think he ruined his karma from the latter by following it with 40 Days and 40 Nights. He doesn’t make Hugo a villain. Yes, he can be cold, and his moves against Odin are calculated, but that does not make him a cipher cold, calculated villain. We get a sense of the angry teenager who has never been able to measure up to his father’s expectations, and reacts against the person who does have his father’s admiration. See, his father is the coach of the basketball team (and is played with fire by Martin Sheen). Mekhi Pfifer for the most part is good as Odin, though he’s better at the happy moments than at the times when we see him unraveled — he seems to be trying to hard as an actor at that point. Julia Stiles is one of the best actresses in her age bracket; she brings groundedness and intelligence to her characters that is natural, not an acting affectation. The same that be said of her performance here.
Where O fails is in key elements that propel the plot that defy suspension of disbelief. I don’t blame this entirely on Tim Blake Nelson or on screenwriter Brad Kaaya. No, I blame William Shakespeare. His prose may be timeless, but many of the key plot points of his stories are based on contrivances, stretches of logic that maybe seemed natural in the 16th century, but seem naïve and anachronistic today. Perhaps the constant moviegoer is too hip to the cliché of someone overhearing illicit information by hiding in a closet, or a stray hair scuttling the perfect crime, to think that anyone would be as dense as to fall for some of the simpler conveniences of Shakespeare. Are we really so dim to think that something like a handkerchief, placed in the wrong hands at the right time, can be a litmus test for fidelity? Are we not supposed to groan when a simple misdirection of the truth overheard through a porch window causes someone to fly into a jealous rage? Can we be forgiven of thinking, “Geez, that was a little farfetched” when a bloodbath ensues and most of the players in this game are dead? Perhaps originality is a little too much to ask, because, after all, the cinematic medium is young, and no doubt looked no further back in the dramatic annals than Shakespeare for inspiration. All this film did was update his story, hoary clichés that they are now intact. I will blame Tim Blake Nelson and Brad Kaaya, though, for the pat ending. Hugo’s denouement voiceover smacks of modern everyone’s-to-blame-but-me psychobabble, reproaching his father for giving his love to someone else, and of course it’s inevitable that something like this would happen. Bollocks.
Lions Gate has released O in a nice two-disc presentation. The feature is presented in both 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and full-frame. To accommodate both versions, the bit rate is rather low, and it shows. Frequent pixelization shows up in large areas of color. Edge enhancement is not overly distracting, but can be seen frequently. Colors are accurate, and shadow detail is high. Overall, not bad, but could have been much better if the extra bits could have been devoted to the widescreen version. Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1. O is a dramatic talkie most of the time, so the rear channels and LFE don’t get much of a workout, except with the bombastic rap music or in a few key scenes in the basketball gymnasium.
For extras, on disc one there is a commentary track and the theatrical trailer. Tim Blake Nelson provides the commentary track. It’s a little dry, but provides many details about the decisions behind the film. The trailer is full-frame, and isn’t listed on the menu — click on the Lions Gate logo to access it.
On the second disc, there is one significant extra: a complete 80-minute 1922 German silent version of “Othello.” As you’d expect, it looks terrible, but what do you expect of an 80-year-old film? The other goodies include interviews with the cast and Tim Blake Nelson, deleted scenes, and “comprehensive analysis of key basketball scenes.” The four deleted scenes are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen with optional commentary by the director. They are mostly continuations of scenes already in the film, and would not have added much to the finished product. The “comprehensive analysis” is just audio commentary on three basketball scenes provided by Nelson joined by the director of photography.
I would not recommend O for purchase, but I would definitely recommend it for rental. The film is powerful and well acted, and deserves your attention. I don’t believe, though, that the film has the repeat viewing potential or the extras the depth that make for a must-own purchase.
For a nice compare-and-contrast, check out 10 Things I Hate About You. It not only also features Julia Stiles and Andrew Keegan, it’s also loosely based on a Shakespeare play, “The Taming of the Shrew” in its case. While not as faithful to the source material as O, it’s nice to see how elements of the original were mixed in, and it’s also a fun pick-me-up after O‘s depressing ending.