Shakespeare 450: O - 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.

'Fascinatingly remakes Shakespeare’s play as a critique of modern male-dominated society'.

Tim Blake Nelson’s O in some ways feels like the darker counterpart to Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You, sharing not only the privileged high school setting (albeit much less caricatured than Junger’s) but also a brace of cast members in Julia Stiles as Desi (Desdemona’s counterpart) and Andrew Keegan as Michael Cassio. Alongside them, Josh Hartnett’s Hugo and Mekhi Phifer’s Odin (O’s Iago and Othello respectively) make up the solid central quartet of young performers. Martin Sheen as Duke Goulding, high school basketball coach and Hugo’s father, adds some veteran quality to the mix; so too does John Heard, well cast in a small but important role during the opening act.

Nelson makes a perfect choice in updating the action to a contemporary private high school in the USA. The prejudice experienced by Odin subtly simmers under the surface throughout, bubbling over here and there in a palpably tense and believable fashion. The transference of the primary set-up from the army to a basketball team is convincing and well-handled, allowing for the power struggles of Shakespeare’s original story to play out entirely authentically.

Whilst O admirably deals with Othello’s fundamental theme of race head on at key points throughout, Nelson’s film is often at its most captivating when focused on the interactions between male and female. This is a story brimming with testosterone, be it through Michael’s uncomfortably chauvinistic treatment of Brandy, Duke’s occasional violent outbursts of frustration, or Odin’s ferocious machismo-fuelled display during a slam dunk contest - one of the film’s most compelling scenes.

O is not just set in a man’s world, but in a macho man’s world. Consider the treatment of Roger (Elden Henson) throughout, bullied because he doesn’t fit the other male characters’ image of what it is to be a man; and Hugo’s desperation to please his father by proving himself on the basketball court. Nelson constantly presents us with questionable examples of manliness, fascinatingly remaking Shakespeare’s play as a critique of modern male-dominated society.

The constant submission of the female characters to the whims of men develops this masculine theme further. Does Desi ultimately pay the price for refusing to unquestioningly follow the expectations of the men surrounding her? Nelson leaves you pondering this long after the credits roll, shining a light on gender politics in an intelligent and relevant way as well as demonstrating a keen insight into Shakespeare’s original text.

The faults here are minor. One or two plot elements from Othello impossible to change or omit feel a little awkward when transferred to the contemporary setting. Whilst the introduction of a strained father-son relationship between Hugo and Duke creates some excellent scenes for Hartnett and Sheen to share, it nonetheless softens the Iago figure in Nelson’s film from the intrinsically evil character Shakespeare originally created by making something of an excuse for his actions. In the end, however, O is a textbook example of how to take a Shakespeare play grounded in antiquated ideas and bring the story bang up to date in a natural and relevant way, emerging as one of the strongest teen Shakespeare adaptations yet.

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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