It’s a curious phenomenon: watching various productions of Shakespeare over a lifetime makes film/theatre critics of us all.
You can often sense the precise moment when a certain detached, analytical air descends upon the audience watching a Shakespeare play. In their minds, each person starts comparing this interpretation (of Hamlet, say) to the complete range of previous interpretations they happen to have seen. Acting styles are compared; the way that the piece has been set and staged; whether there’s some contemporary angle, a modern re-reading going on; and what liberties have been taken with the original text – all these issues rapidly turn over in the minds of spectators.
I’ll never forget watching the Mel Gibson version of Hamlet in 1990, in the context of a cloistered critics’ preview theatrette. This film was instantly controversial and divisive simply because Gibson was in it – meaning there just had to be something very pop, very Mad Max about it. At the end of this particular screening, even before the credits were over and the lights went up, one self-styled Shakespearean scholar behind me performed, in a very loud voice, all the lines and soliloquies that Gibson had not spoken – each recitation prefaced with: “And how dare he leave out this magnificent piece of Shakespeare’s text!” What a show-off.
I’m not so different. A strictly amateur Shakespearean scholar I may well be, but I, too, tend to dive into a personal reverie about the stylistic differences between Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Roman Polanski, Orson Welles and Franco Zeffirelli whenever I watch a new rendering of Shakespeare. This critical cottage industry got very busy upon arrival of a slate of Shakespearean films in the mid ‘90s – hot on the heels of the much-trumpeted Jane Austen revival (the middlebrow snob crowd has to be kept happy!).
Here, I deal with a version of Othello that features a strikingly mixed cast: Laurence Fishburne as Othello, Kenneth Branagh as Iago, and Irène Jacob (an ethereal beauty from several Krzysztof Kieślowski movies) as Desdemona.
The highest praise I can give this movie is to testify that it had the power to shake me out of that distant, analytical position I usually adopt when watching Shakespearean work. It’s a genuinely dramatic, passionate and tragic performance, and it riveted me to the emotions, themes and relationships of the play.
Out of all the canonised works by this old dead white male (I’m kidding), Othello boasts his best storyline. The triangle of Othello, Iago and Desdemona is superb material for any director and cast. Othello, as a Moor, is an outsider to the society that rewards him as a soldier. His passionate, romantic side flowers in his relationship with the fair, young Desdemona. Then, in walks the brilliantly evil and scheming Iago. Step by step, he poisons Othello, twists him up with jealous, murderous thoughts.
The patsy in this story is Othello’s sidekick Cassio (Nathaniel Parker – the director’s younger brother). Iago has planned it perfectly that, while Othello comes more and more to suspect Cassio of bedding his wife, at the same time Desdemona keeps trying to innocently intervene on Cassio’s behalf – thus compounding the problem.
It has become a cliché to say of films such as Burnt by the Sun (1994) or La Cérémonie (1995) that they “march relentlessly towards an inevitable tragedy” – meaning that they have, in vulgar showbiz terms, a slow burn toward a big, terrible, apocalyptic finish, one that has been menacingly hinted at all throughout. Watching this new version of Othello reconnected me to the authentic, original Shakespearean spirit of tragedy: an agonising process that makes us watch an entire social system unravel right to its demise, leaving lies, death and an overall sense of monumental waste strewn about in the ultimate tableau of corpses.
Let’s return to the matter of casting. It’s a bold choice of actors here. Fishburne is a strong, modern actor in films including Bill Duke’s Deep Cover (1992) and Abel Ferrara’s King of New York (1990). Casting him as Othello has a touch of that Mad-Mel-as-Hamlet frisson to it. Fishburne does not play it like he’s a wired-up drug dealer in the Bronx; it’s not the kind of modernised version of Shakespeare, deliberately exaggerating such incongruity (for that sort of thing, see Baz Luhrmann’s modern-dress film of Romeo and Juliet ).
Fishburne looks a little uneasy, as if overawed to be part of this project; he does weird things with his voice to compensate for his innately non-classical acting style. He tends to go a little glassy-eyed, somewhat stolid in his body and mechanical in his line readings. But he is, and let’s be frank about this, one extremely imposing black man. The sight of this guy kissing the pale, white Desdemona and rolling around in the sack with her has a transgressive force that few versions of Othello have ever brought home. As inter-racial romances go, it’s a hell of a lot stronger than the union of Ralph Fiennes and Angela Basset in Kathryn Bigelow’s dopey SF extravaganza Strange Days (1995).
Fishburne brings out the burning passions of Othello, including his short fuse of anger and, at the other end of the spectrum, his utter feeling of desolation when he suspects that love has abandoned him. It’s very different, for instance, to Welles’ playing of the character; he turned Othello into a maudlin, self-obsessed creature, forever weeping at what cruel destiny has done to his ego. Welles, in that old-fashioned way we all know from studying Shakespeare back in secondary school, goes in search of Othello’s inner fatal flaw (hubris or whatever), and ends up unbalancing the careful triangle of the drama. Fishburne’s Othello is no saint but he’s more of a victim, a great howling beast whose actions are perverted by evil circumstance.
Jacob as Desdemona also seems to be having problems with speaking her lines, probably because English is not her first language. She gives the text a very slow, measured, even halting reading. But what’s great about this casting is, first of all, her physical rightness for the part and, second, her immense quality of emotional nakedness and vulnerability. When this Desdemona falls for Othello in a flashback; when she’s slapped unjustly by him and cries; when she fiercely protests her innocence; when she pleads for her life and flings herself into Othello’s big brute arms … Jacob gives you all of these states with an admirable, undistanced immediacy.
Branagh, on the other hand, inhabits a completely different plateau of performance style. His line readings are brilliantly contrived, to the point of total mannerism. As in his own Shakespearean films, he does everything possible to make the text comprehensible in an everyday way. His special gift is to make even the most poetic or arch of Shakespeare’s inventions sound colloquial, brusque or just plain vulgar. For instance, when Branagh crouches behind a pole and yells out to Desdemona’s father that she and Othello are presently making like “the beast with two backs”, he comes over like a naughty, nerdy, snot-nosed schoolboy.
Although I sometimes tire of Branagh’s endless show-off flexing of his facial muscles and rapid-fire gesticulations, I have to admit that as Iago he is, at the end of the day, terrific. He gives off a superbly slimy air of menace and manipulation. He also seems to have taken a leaf out of Welles’ interpretation of the drama by giving a hint of gayness – a not very flattering hint – to Iago’s personal aura.
This Othello is directed by Oliver Parker; after almost a decade of acting, it’s his debut as metteur en scène. His work is good and vivid, and he can be proud of it. But there’s also something spotty, hit-and-miss about his stylisation of the material.
Turning it over in my mind afterwards, I pondered a spectrum of ways of presenting Shakespeare. Zeffirelli places Shakespeare’s stories within fully, lushly recreated settings, a lot of pomp and circumstance. Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993) goes for a less fussy but no less naturalistic effect, full of the freshness of fields, water and horse riding in the open air. Welles turns his Shakespearean adaptations into a frenetic, modernist montage of fragments: a line of text, a face in shadow, a roll of drums, trumpets or lightning on the soundtrack, a striking architectural corner of an old castle in some remote part of the world – all cut together at a furious, almost hallucinatory pace.
There are the Russian versions of Shakespeare by Grigori Kozinstev (1905-1973), which often replace text with monumental, poetic imagery in both natural and highly wrought artificial settings. Then there’s Tony Richardson’s 1969 Hamlet – among my very favourite Shakespeare films – which, for the most part, sticks the actors in pitch darkness and shoots them intensely delivering their lines in claustrophobic close-up. Peter Brook fused these two directorial approaches in his King Lear (1971).
Parker’s way of giving us Othello is not as clear-cut as any of those options. He reduces the historical pomp of costumes, banquets and military parades, and goes for a slightly abstracted reduction to essentials. He’s always trying to run scenes together or butt them against each other immediately. So, for instance, he has Othello and Desdemona marrying and then suddenly, outside, through a window, Rodrigo spying on them, and launching into a commentary with Iago.
There are striking transitions, such as when a scene ends on Desdemona’s teary face at the end of a harsh scene with Othello; and when the camera pulls back from her, it’s a different scene and space entirely, and Iago is prowling right up to her ear. Parker tries out various tricks with the play’s soliloquies: he projects a speech by Othello into a thought-track voice-over; while he gives Iago the gift of complicity with the camera and with us, the freedom to steal a wicked glance in our direction even when he’s not talking – like some Shakespearean Ferris Bueller.
But these various directorial strategies never really add up to a coherent, organic, articulated approach to the material. And, while I have praised the casting decisions individually, it’s also true to say that Parker finds it near impossible to blend these three very different actors and their styles – Fishburne, Jacob and Branagh – into a proper ensemble. There is a clashing and grinding of gears, a heterogeneity of elements which is not particularly pleasing, or turned to the project’s advantage.
Although it’s ultimately a far from perfect film, I heartily recommend this Othello – because the drama, and the full-blooded presences of the actors, are absorbing and very moving.
© Adrian Martin May 1996