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‘Othello’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 29, 1995

Director Oliver Parker's "Othello" is a handsome but skimpy new version of Shakespeare's complex tale of jealousy and betrayal. This is the sixth film adaptation of the tragic story of the warrior general and his bitter aide-de-camp Iago, and because this "Othello" is so dumbed down, it's clearly aimed at the sound-bite generation.

Kenneth Branagh, who plays Iago, doesn't just steal the show; one suspects he might have sat in the director's chair as well. His oh-so-puckish Iago must have taken a wrong turn on his way to "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Though Laurence Fishburne holds his own as the doomed Moor Othello, Branagh is so intrusive they should have called this disjointed adaptation "That Darned Iago." Never before has poor, deluded Othello's tragedy seemed so trivial.

Parker, a stage actor new to filmmaking, encourages the smirking Branagh to address his asides to the camera, thus enlisting us as his accomplices in his evil scheme. In most adaptations, Iago serves to emphasize Othello's downfall. But Branagh's wisecracking, backslapping Iago turns Fishburne's lovesick warrior into his straight man.

Parker, who adapted the play himself, retained many of the best-known lines from its major speeches, giving us only the Bard's Greatest Bits. The basics of the plot, however, remain the same. Iago, who has served alongside Othello for a decade, is angered when the celebrated general chooses another lieutenant, Cassio (splendid Nathaniel Parker), as his second in command. In retribution, Iago sabotages Cassio's promotion and convinces Othello that he is being cuckolded by the handsome officer and his new bride, Desdemona (radiant Irene Jacob). The "green-eyed beast" is released, and in a fit of jealousy, Othello smothers the angelic Desdemona. Even as she dies, Desdemona caresses the scarred cheek of her beloved husband.

Unfortunately, there's nothing in this Othello's manner that presages his sudden, abusive behavior. In the lovely flashbacks (filming took place in Venice and the Orsini-Odescalchi castle near Rome) he seems too savvy to buy Iago's silly stories, and his relationship with Desdemona is seemingly one of long standing. Passion, like outpourings of iambic pentameter, isn't part of this picture's equation.

In lieu of these, Parker substitutes nakedly obvious imagery—Iago toying with black and white chess pieces—and arty nude scenes featuring Fishburne and Jacob in their bedchamber. This "Othello" allows us to judge for ourselves whether the Moor loved not wisely but too well.

Othello is rated R for violence, sexuality and nudity.

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