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‘Othello’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 29, 1995

ADAPTING "OTHELLO" for the screen, as stage director Oliver Parker has discovered, can be troublesome. How do you make credible and galvanize the actions of Othello, the noble Moor (played by Laurence Fishburne) who cruelly sacrifices his dearly beloved Desdemona (Irene Jacob) over innuendo and a strategically placed handkerchief?

How do you bring modern audiences to a finer understanding of Iago (Kenneth Branagh), Othello's conniving lieutenant, whose evil machinations irreparably ruin the lives of at least six people—and all this because he was passed over for promotion?

For Shakespeare, solving such dramaturgical problems was simple. He made the richest dramatic poetry in Western civilization flow effortlessly from the mouths of his characters. But in movies, where visual information takes precedence, characters can't just chat beautifully. How they look marks how effective they are.

The screen is also a crudely explicit medium, where motivations lie bare, banal and easily vulnerable to public disapproval. Whether you're Hamlet or Rambo, you go through the same modern wringer. This may explain why one group of twentysomething viewers tittered throughout a recent "Othello" screening.

In the movie, as with the play, Iago becomes jealously disgruntled when military commander Othello takes Cassio as his lieutenant. He hatches an elaborate scheme, in which he needles Othello with the possibility that his new bride, Desdemona, is having an affair with Cassio. When Othello demands "ocular proof," Iago supplies it, by "discovering" Desdemona's handkerchief on Cassio's person. This false evidence sets a chain of tragic events into motion.

Filmmaker Parker, whose screenplay strips down the original play, merely produces a lackluster essence. What remains is to savor the passing beauty of Shakespeare, no matter who utters it. ("There are many events in the womb of time," says Iago, referring to his nasty scheme, "which shall be delivered.")

Parker's direction is also disappointing. With the exception of Branagh, whose narcissistic, bratty qualities and Shakespearean training inform the role disconcertingly well, the performers seem horribly out of place.

Fishburne, who is an instinctively good, but cold, screen actor, never pulls us into Othello's soul. Trying to portray military bearing, sensuality and innate nobility, he looks unintentionally arrogant in some places, and dramatically outmatched (chiefly by Branagh) in others.

As the object of Othello's grand affections, Irene Jacob (who has starred in films by Polish director Krysztztoff Kieslowski) remains tentative and, frankly, not worth all the fuss. She seems doubly out of place—as a 20th-century movie actress doing Shakespeare, and as a French speaker caught in an English-language picture. Fishburne and Jacob don't look comfortable together; so their affair doesn't look right. In an alarming way, Iago's evil ways almost make sense: This love affair really does have to be stopped.

OTHELLO (R) — Contains nudity, sexual situations and murder most foul.

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