If you ever become obsessed with Othello, there are plenty of film and TV versions to keep you busy, especially if you don’t mind foreign films. There’s something like 54 listings with Othello as the title, and that doesn’t take into consideration the opera.
In anticipation of the Brigit Saint Brigit production, I thought it would be fun to watch every single one and find for you the definitive version. But then I came to my senses and thought I’d just touch on a few that have appeared in the last few years.
Othello – The BBC financed an entire series of William Shakespeare’s works, and in 1981 it produced Othello with Anthony Hopkins, in black face, and Bob Hoskins. This still remains for me the absolute rendition, because Hoskins plays Iago so likeable but so viperous when alone. He’s an excellent, awe-inspiring actor who has made so many tremendous contributions to cinema. (In Britain at least.) Hopkins also is a wonder to watch. You’ll be emotionally exhausted by the time it’s over. The only fault I have with this production is the casting of Penelope Wilton as Desdemona. She was 36-years-old and so really too old to play this character. Desdemona needs to be in her early 20s to be believable, because few women who reach 30 are this naïve and innocent. A near perfect attempt, though.
Othello – In 1995, Oliver Parker adapted and directed Shakespeare’s story about the tragic Moor with Laurence Fishburne, Kenneth Branagh and Irene Jacob in the leads. Taking a tip from literary scholars, Parker and Branagh envisioned Iago as a vengeful homosexual. In French films, Jacob is fantastic. I adore her in Trois Coleurs: Rouge, my favorite of the three; Au Revoir Les Enfants and La Double Vie de Veronique, but in English she fizzles. She seems more confused than innocent. Branagh is dastardly but I’ve never agreed with the homosexual angle. It doesn’t make sense. In fact, it creates a terrible stereotype that unfulfilled homosexuals are for some inexplicable reason homicidal. I also wasn’t much impressed with Fishburne, who since 1999 has and always will be Morpheus. Sorry.
O – As a way to make Othello accessible to high school students, Bray Kaaya adapted it into a script that became “O.” Directed by Tim Blake Nelson, of O Brother Where Art There fame, the film finished production in 1999 and the original release date coincided with the Columbine massacre. The parallels apparently seemed to close for comfort so the film was shelved until 2001. Starring Mekhi Phifer, Josh Harnett and Julia Stiles as Odin, Hugo and Desi, the action revolves around a star basketball player, his girlfriend and the coach’s son who finds himself overshadowed by Odin. The film had potential but Phifer’s character is completely devoid of any heart. In fact, he’s filled with pride and has a chip on his shoulder. Since it’s modernized, audiences have less sympathy for Desi, because a) she’s not married to Odin and b) seems smart enough to get away from this abusive jerk. The only character I really felt sorry for was Iago. His actions are by no means justified but we can understand how he got to this point. All he wants is love and to be noticed. Starring as his championship obsessed coach is Martin Sheen, who ironically plays the kind of guy that Emilio Estevez was ranting about in The Breakfast Club. “Win, win, win.”
Othello – In 2002, this timeless classic was reimagined by Andrew Davies and takes place in the metropolitan police department of New Scotland Yard against a background of police corruption and racism. As in the case of O, this version takes the themes and characters in Othello and inserts them into a new environment. Eamonn Walker plays John Othello, the black commissioner who it is hoped will put a lid on the racial tension. Christopher Eccleston plays Ben Jago, the best friend of Othello but who in his rage is willing to destroy everyone. And Keeley Hawes plays Dessie, Othello’s wife and true love. This version aired on Exxon Mobil’s Masterpiece Theatre in early 2002 and has quickly become one of my favorites. In fact as soon as the DVD ended, I immediately thought “I have to buy that” and for more reasons than that I adore Eccleston. To read more about the movie, go to the PBS website, which has much more information, interviews, etc.
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