Saturday, September 19, 2015

Stubs – Othello

Othello (1995) Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Kenneth Branagh, Irène Jacob, Nathaniel Parker, Michael Maloney. Directed by Oliver Parker. Screenplay by Oliver Parker Based on the play Othello by William Shakespeare (London, ca. 1604, published 1622). Produced by David Barron, Luc Roeg.  Run Time: 125 minutes. U.K. U.S. Color Drama, Tragedy

In our continuing study of movies based on the plays of William Shakespeare, next up is the 1995 version of Othello, based on the play of the same name, also known as The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. The play was written around 1603-04 and based on the short story Un Capitano Moro ("A Moorish Captain") by Cinthio, first published in 1565. The first known performance of Othello was November 1, 1604 at Whitehall Palace in London.

The play is somewhat unique in the canon of Shakespeare’s plays in that the eponymous character is a non-white, Moor. Moors were medieval Muslim inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal), Sicily and Malta. The Moors arrived on the Iberian Peninsula in 711 from North African Morrocco and remained until they were expelled in 1492, the same year Christopher Columbus sailed for the New World under the Spanish kingdom’s flag.

The term Moors was a derogatory term for Muslims and was applied in Europe to Arabs and Sub-Saharan Africans. While Shakespeare left Othello’s race ambiguous, he is often portrayed as a black African.

Othello has inspired two operas, both called Otello and both in Italian. The first has a libretto by Francesco Maria Berio di Salsi and music by Gioachino Rossini. This Otello was first performed on December 4, 1816. Seventy-one years later, Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Arrigo Boito wrote a second adaptation. This one was first performed in Milan on February 5, 1887.

Films have been made using both the plays and the operas as a basis since 1909, though oftentimes Othello was played by a white actor. Emil Jannings, the great German silent actor, played the role in 1922; Orson Welles in his own version in 1952; and Laurence Olivier played Othello on film in 1965. Our Othello marked the first major film production to cast a black actor, Laurence Fishburne, as Othello.

The film marks Oliver Parker’s directorial debut. While the film follows the play’s plot very closely, lines are cut and some scenes are added. This is to be expected as every screenwriter/director wants to put his own mark on the project and not merely film the play. Live-theater and film are similar, but very different ways of telling a story and Parker cannot be faulted for using the aspects of the media that were not available to Shakespeare when he wrote this play.

The film, like the play, opens in Venice. Desdemona (Irène Jacob) is hurrying to her secret marriage ceremony to Othello (Laurence Fishbourne), a Moorish general in the Army. Roderigo (Michael Maloney), who is in love with Desdemona, complains about this to his friend, Iago (Kenneth Branagh), an ensign under Othello, who hates him because he believes Othello slept with his wife, Emilia (Anna Patrick). For money, he promises Roderigo that he’ll split up the marriage, so he can have his chance with Desdemona.

The two go to wake Brabantio (Pierre Vaneck), Desdemona’s father, to tell him of his daughter’s elopement. Brabantio is enraged at the news and gathers the family to go after Othello. Afterwards, Iago finds Othello and warns him that Brabatino is coming after him.

Brabantio and his family confront Othello and his men, but while there is some sword-play, they are called to the Duke of Venice’s (Gabriele Ferzetti) residence. News has arrived in Venice that the Turks are going to attack Cyprus and Othello has been summoned.

Othello (Laurence Fishbourne) confronts his father-in-law. Iago (Kenneth Branagh) is to the left.

In front of the Duke, Brabantio accuses Othello of seducing Desdemona by witchcraft. To clear the air, Dedemona is summoned to the residence. Desdemona confirms that she loves Othello, which satisifies the senate and the Duke, but Brabantio is still not overjoyed.

Brabantio (Pierre Vaneck) is not happy about Desdemona's (Irene Jacobs) marriage to Othello.

The real business before the Duke is gotten to and Othello is sent to Cyprus to command the Venetian Army against the Turks. Othello leaves, accompanied by his new wife, Cassio (Nathaniel Parker), a new lieutenant, Iago, and Emilia, who is also Desdemona’s attendant.

The Turks flee Cyrus and Othello orders a general celebration. While Othello is spending private time with Desdemona, Iago schemes to ruin Cassio. After admitting to Iago that he can’t hold his liquor, Iago gets him drunk and then persuades Rodrigo to draw him out into a fight. When Othello learns of the fight, he blames Cassio and strips him of his rank.

Desdemona joins Othello on Cyprus after the Turks flee.

Iago, always the mixer, convinces Cassio to use Desdemona as a go-between to help rehabilitate his reputation with Othello. Iago then persuades Othello to be suspicious of Cassio and Desdemona.

When Desdemona uses a handkerchief with strawberries on it, a family heirloom of sorts for Othello and his first gift to her, to help bind Othello’s headache, she accidentally drops it on the bed. Emilia, who has watched this, scoops it up and delivers it to Iago, but has no idea why he wants it. Iago then plants the handkerchief in Cassio’s residence.

Still trying to convince Othello of Desdemona’s affair, Iago has Othello watch as he speaks with Cassio about the handkerchief. Instead of the handkerchief, Iago speaks to Cassio about his affair with Bianca (Indra Ové), a local woman with whom Cassio has been spending a lot of time with lately. While they are speaking, Bianca confronts Cassio about the handkerchief and chastises him for giving her a gift he received from a prior lover. Cassio pleads with her that that is not the case and follows after her.

Iago talks with Cassio (Nathaniel Parker) under false pretenses to prove a point to Othello.

Othello, having seen this exchange, is convinced by Iago that Cassio had received the handkerchief from Desdemona, despite the great significance Othello placed on it in the context of their relationship. Othello is enraged at his wife’s betrayal and resolves to kill her. He then asks Iago to kill Cassio.

From then on, Othello is rather cruel to Desdemona, even striking her in front of visiting Venetian nobles, including Lodovico (Michael Sheen).

 Lodovico (Michael Sheen) is one of the visiting Venetian nobles.

Meanwhile, Roderigo is not happy with the lack of progress Iago has made and wants his money back. Iago convinces him to kill Cassio; Iago hides while Roderigo attacks Cassio on the street, but in the swordfight, Roderigo is wounded by Cassio, even though Iago creeps up from behind Cassio and badly cuts his leg during the skirmish.

Cassio cries for help and Iago, along with the Venetian nobles, comes to help. While the others attend to Cassio, Iago pretends to help Roderigo, whom he quietly stabs to prevent him from revealing the plot. Later we see Cassio and Roderigo being attended to in an infirmary. Roderigo is not quite dead when he arrives, but dies while Iago watches.

Later that night, Othello confronts Desdemona and refuses to believe her pleas that she has been faithful to him. He then smothers her with a pillow. She is not quite dead when Emilia arrives to tell Othello about Roderigo’s death. When Desdemona dies, Emilia screams for help. Lodovico, Iago and others arrive.

Othello can't be convinced of Desdemona's fidelity.

Still in the bedroom, Desdemona’s body still where she was killed, Othello admits to the murder. Emilia begins to explain the situation, implicating her husband when Othello mentions the handkerchief as proof of Desdemona’s betrayal. Iago then stabs Emilia in front of everyone. She asks to be laid down next to her mistress to die.

Realizing Desdemona’s innocence, Othello stabs Iago, but not fatally, saying that he would rather have Iago live the rest of his life in pain. For his part, Iago refuses to explain his motives, vowing to remain silent from that moment on. Othello commits suicide with a dagger he has hidden and dies on the bed next to Desdemona. Cassio is made Governor of the island by Lodovico and Iago is sent away to be punished.

Iago gets what's coming to him when Othello stabs him.

Unlike the play, the movie ends with a burial at sea for the bodies, presumably of Othello and Desdemona. Othello, like The Merchant of Venice (2004) and Romeo and Juliet (1968), was shot on location, with some scenes shot in Venice. Like Merchant, the authentic backdrops add to the realism of the story.

The acting for the most part is very good. Laurence Fishbourne was an established actor by this point in his career, having starred in such films as Boyz In the Hood (1991) and having appeared on stage. Up until then, he was not an actor one associated with Shakespeare. However, he is very good in the role and brings out all sides of Othello’s character.

Laurence Fishbourne as Othello.
He is teamed with Kenneth Branagh, an actor who is very much associated with the works of Shakespeare, having appeared in several stage productions and writing, directing and starring in the films Henry V (1989) and Much Ado About Nothing (1993). Branagh is excellent at the conniving, scheming and generally evil Iago. The character has so much screentime and carries the plot that he could be considered to be the lead, though not the hero of the piece.

Kenneth Branagh plays Iago.

Other fine performances are turned in by Indra Ové as the beautiful Desdemona, Nathaniel Parker as Cassio and Anna Patrick as Emilia. Of these, I think Parker’s Cassio is the best and certainly the meatiest of the roles. Just for reference sake, the Parkers, director and actor, are brothers and Anna Patrick is also Nathaniel’s wife. Sometimes nepotism pays off, as they are both very fine actors.

For a first time director, I think Oliver Patrick did a good job of keeping the story moving forward. I’ve seen that some adaptations can take up to three plus hours to tell the story. The shorter running time means that a lot of the play was excised In order to keep things moving. While that might be seen as a disservice to the Bard, it is not out of line with the writer’s own work. Even though we may see Shakespeare as a lofty writer of tragedies and comedies, he was in reality writing for the enjoyment of the common man, which made up the audience at the Globe Theatre where much of his work premiered. This Othello, with its shorter run time, is perhaps better suited for today’s audience, with shorter attention spans, than a full out and out adaptation of the entire play.

The film received over all positive reviews, with Branagh called out for his Iago. He was even nominated for the Screen Actors Guild’s Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role. Fishburne would receive an Image Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Motion Picture and the film would be nominated for Outstanding Motion Picture. However, despite the good reviews, this production was far from a success. Budgeted at $11 million, this Othello brought in less than $3 million in the U.S.

For me, this was my first exposure to Othello. This recent immersion in Shakespearean films has exposed me to a lot of stories that I had either avoided or neglected, depending on your point of view. For some reason Othello always seemed sort of intimidating to me. This production made this story much more accessible for me.

However, even though the acting was good, I still found myself getting lost sometimes in the meter of Shakespeare’s dialogue. Despite that, the film was not really hard to follow on a high level, but some subtleties with story and dialogue sort of washed over me and I’m sure I’ve missed out on some based on my own lack of knowledge of Shakespeare.

If you’re new to Shakespearean films like I am, then I would certainly recommend this film to you. Again, the acting and directing are very good and the pace of the film keeps things moving. However, I’m not sure if the more knowledgeable of the Bard you are the less you may forgive the cuts or the additions that were made. If for no other reason, the film should be seen for Fishburne’s and Branagh’s performances.

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