Othello (1995) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Scoop's notes

Can a film be bad Shakespeare and a good movie? I don't see any reason why not.

Some of the actors in this film really butcher the iambic pentameter. Fishburne is below average, but it is Irene Jacob who delivers that immortal, oft-quoted Shakespearian mot, "Wata neefee tware?" If I'm right, and mind you I'm only guessing here, I think she meant to say, "What and if it were?" Lord, save us. I don't mean to deprecate Jacob as an actress. I like her. She can act with her eyes and her body, and in other movies she has even been capable in the English language, when her rhythms and accent were appropriate to the role. Plus she's gorgeous, and she has a really sexy voice for both speaking and singing. The only problem is that she just can't recite the blank verse. I guess it could have been worse. They could have cast Van Damme as Othello and Rodman as Desdemona. Rodman could have worn that dress he wore when he wedded himself. What the hell, it keeps it a bi-racial couple, even if the moor is now the female. And Keanu Reeves could have been the satanically rational Iago. And I'm sure there's a part for Kevin Tighe in there somewhere.

The filmmaking team also took the liberty of cutting about half of Shakespeare's lines, but no problem by me. I much prefer the blessed silence to Jacob's delivery. Thankfully, they didn't replace Big Bill's lines with some written by Joe Eszterhas. They simply condensed the dialogue to the essentials, and Oliver Parker wrote some small transitions to fill in the gaps. Personally, I think that was a pretty good artistic and marketing decision. There's no audience for four hour movies, and Othello has never been one of Shakespeare's most accessible plays. Iago's motivations have never really been very clear to me, and the play is talkier than usual, so it's really a play for the purists of the Old Italian Body Count School of Drama. A bit of condensation served the story well.

The changes also altered the focus enough so that it might have made more sense to call it "Iago."

In order for the play to succeed on Shakespeare's terms, Othello must fall because of his own flaws, not just because he is duped by Iago. If Othello is nothing more than a simpleton and a pawn, then he is no tragic hero, is he? Yet in this version Iago seems to be a puppetmaster, pulling all the strings and, with his confidences expressed in asides to us, drawing the audience in as his co-conspirators, even using chess pieces to represent his manipulations to us. The identification with Iago is sealed by Branagh's performance, since he may be the best actor in the world at closing the gap between Shakespeare's words and modern audiences. He understands all the nuances, and can convey them in ways we can easily grasp. Thus, the focus of this movie becomes, "Look, I am Iago, a modern man with modern motivations like any of you. Look how any of us modern rational thinkers could control these medieval simpletons." This is a major shift from "Let me see who, among these supposedly pure of heart, can be corrupted and tempted because of their weaknesses not immediately apparent."

OK, it isn't really Shakespearean, but you know something? I think Shakespeare would like a lot of things about the way they did this. I feel about this film about the same way I feel about "Shakespeare in Love." It's not the way Billy Boy really intended it, but it's the way he would have intended it if he could have written it in our times, understanding our audiences. If he were writing the play today instead of in 1600, he'd write it something like the way it is done here. He'd make it entertaining and simple enough to play to the groundlings, and in our context that means no four hour plays. He'd focus in on advancing the story at a pace appropriate to our times, and yet he'd ask us to think about the greater implications.

I rather liked it.

Maybe bad Shakespeare, but a good movie.

On the other hand, who is the audience? Shakespeare purists will whine, and those who don't like Shakespeare aren't going to be pouring through the turnstiles, are they?  


DVD info from Amazon



Breasts from Irene Jacob

Tuna's notes

Othello is Oliver Parker's screen interpretation of the classic Shakespeare tragedy. For the first time on the silver screen, he cast a black man as the blackamoor Othello. In 1964, in honor of Shakespeare's 300th birthday, a Southern California Junior College cast Othello as a black actor and Desdemona as a white actress. This was hugely controversial, but the school backed up the director's decision, and the show played to rave reviews. It took 31 years for movies to manage what a junior college achieved.

Shakespeare was first and foremost a wordsmith, not a story-teller. Many of his stories were taken from oral tradition. All of this makes one wonder at the wisdom of cutting more than half of his words from the production, but there was method in the madness. They cast Laurence Fishburne in the title role. Had the dialogue been faithful to Shakespeare, and showed Othello as an eloquent and lordly character, the casting simply wouldn't have worked, but Fishburne was a very good choice for this Othello, who was a heroic general who doted on Desdemona, but was tormented by jealousy. I believe that making Othello a simpler person, and cutting much of the flowery dialogue was a valid artistic decision.

But the strength of that change was counterbalanced by another. For Othello to work, you must have a very strong Iago, and a sympathetic Desdemona. Irene Jacob as Desdemona was sympathetic, and what she lacked in language skills, I thought she made up for in character development. On the other hand, Kenneth Branagh played a weak Iago. He simply wasn't slimy or evil enough.

No matter what you decide about how well Oliver Parker did with this interpretation, you will find major critics who agree with all of your points. Critical reaction was all over the place because the film is filled with controversial interpretations and abridgements. Could there be a better screen Othello? Certainly. On the other hand, it could have been much much worse. I liked the film.  While the full version of the play is thought to be a hard watch, this film version was much more accessible, and I think the cinematography and set design were highly successful, but I would have liked more joy than a single love scene to contrast with a very dark ending.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: two and a half out of four stars. Berardinelli gave it three stars, but Ebert only a disappointing two stars. Ebert took a purist aproach and focused on the "bad Shakespeare" side of the film. This is also a legitimate point of view, in my opinion, but I myself don't care if you butcher Shakespeare. As long as the end product is something I like.


The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. It was budgeted at $11 million for production, grossed only $2 million.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this film is a C+. We both recommend it for anyone interested in a different take on Shakespeare.

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