Shakespeare 450: Othello (1995) - DVD Review

2014 marks what would have been William Shakespeare's 450th birthday. In celebration of this (and being something of a Shakespeare nut) Ben intends to spend the year taking in as many Shakespeare films as he can - from old favourites to new interpretations and everything in between.

'Fishburne’s Othello is pitch perfect for this version, making the character exotic and passionate whilst also believable and authentic'

The fact that Oliver Parker’s 1995 film of Othello was the first major cinematic version of the play to cast a black actor in the title role feels, when looking back nearly twenty years on, both surprising and shameful. It also highlights the awkward historical baggage that film adaptations of the tragedy still carry, with such renowned thespians as Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier and Anthony Hopkins all having donned blackface in the past to take on the role for the big screen.

Laurence Fishburne’s central performance is thankfully therefore the highlight of the Parker’s film. Fishburne’s Othello is pitch perfect for this version, making the character exotic and passionate whilst also believable and authentic. The actor’s ability to transform Othello from a level-headed and respected general to a genuinely frightening and tragically misled man is superb. His delivery of the Bard’s words with enunciated flourish is a delight, making Fishburne’s portrayal of the Moor of Venice arguably one of the best ever on screen.

Opposite Fishburne, Kenneth Branagh revels in the role of Iago. The first Shakespearean film adaptation for Branagh where he wasn’t in the director’s chair as well as in front of the camera, this is also the first time we see the actor play a Shakespearean villain on screen rather than a hero. Branagh makes Iago the Machiavellian delight he should be, clearly enjoying every moment of the character’s contorting personality and sly asides to the audience. Whilst this isn’t Branagh’s most memorable performance in a Shakespeare play on film - you get the feeling the actor is more comfortable when taking direction from himself - it’s certainly another solidly skilful and enjoyable one.

Fishburne and Branagh aside, the performances here sadly are at best forgettable, at worst really quite poor; Irene Jacob’s amateurish and flat portrayal of Desdemona, for example, is a distraction throughout. Spotting Michael Sheen’s first film appearance in a relatively minor role acting through a mildly ludicrous haircut will amuse film aficionados, but in all seriousness it’s a genuine shame that Parker fails to assemble a supporting cast as strong as his lead pair.

Unfortunately, Parker’s direction too lacks the flair to lift this off the screen. Creating a period piece faithful to Shakespeare’s original vision, the director rarely manages to make his film seem more than a by-the-numbers affair. It’s never bad, but neither does Parker’s Othello ever feel special or memorable in its craft. There are also a few haphazard excisions from Shakespeare’s original text, resulting in a handful of moments where the narrative notably stumbles - including during a particularly pivotal scene around the halfway mark.

Parker’s Othello ends up as an average of the strong and the weak elements within it. This is worth watching for Fishburne and Branagh as Othello and Iago alone. Through Fishburne’s ownership of the title role, this is also a significant cinematic event through the throwing off of the politically incorrect baggage of Othello films of the past. It’s therefore even more disappointing that almost everything else aside from the central duo here ends up feeling distinctly ordinary. As a faithful telling of Shakespeare’s tragic story, overall this does the job, but regretfully not much more.

Keep up to date with the Shakespeare 450 series so far.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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