THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Wednesday, January 24, 1996 TAG: 9601240046 SECTION: DAILY BREAK PAGE: E1 EDITION: FINAL TYPE: Movie review SOURCE: BY MAL VINCENT, MOVIE CRITIC LENGTH: Medium: 88 lines
THE FOURTH SCREEN version of William Shakespeare's ``Othello'' has a rawness and sexuality that may compensate for its rushed, streamlined cuts.
While playing fast and loose with the Bard, this version still manages to go right to the heart and emotions of the matter - a domestic situation easily recognized by modern audiences. Some newscasters went so far as to bring up the ``Othello'' case while covering the O.J. Simpson trial.
The script has been cut by at least half, which may infuriate purists but will help sell tickets to everyday moviegoers. Gone are most of the subplots and historical references, but the central confrontation steadfastly remains. The spirit of the original is there, even if things do seem rushed.
Laurence Fishburne, the first African-American to play the title role on film, is a Shakespearean novice - and there are times when it shows. His accent sounds like it came from the West Indies. But he more than makes up for it with intensity and charisma.
After all, Othello was a simple man, a warrior who was much needed by 16th century Venetians to offset invasions by the Turks. And Fishburne's Othello is suitably noble. He demands respect but is, at the same time, a rough, even naive man. His portrayal is not in the ranks of the great readings, but he has a strong movie presence.
Othello's rage, as well as his weakness, is conveyed in a way that holds the viewer both awed and intimidated. This is a soul-searching Othello who does not give in easily to the conspiracies around him.
If anything, Fishburne is better than James Earl Jones was in the most recent Broadway staging. And he is much more introspective than Laurence Olivier's memorable but overdone 1965 screen version. Orson Welles' 1952 version was more memorably photographed than this one, but it had even more cuts.
It is Kenneth Branagh's playing of the evil Iago that steals the show. After all, it's written that way. Othello, when all is said and done, is an unbelievably stupid character - capable of winning battles but unable to even check the passing of his wife's handkerchief. This, too, is perhaps Shakespeare's simplest drama. Rather than the sweeping historical plots of his other plays, this is a case of domestic conflict. Only that most elusive of monsters - jealously - can really explain the irrationality of it all.
It is the simple directness of this plot that has made it so adaptable to opera, inspiring works by both Rossini and Verdi.
Branagh's experience with Shakespeare shows. He has a rare knack for making such archaic language seem clear yet poetic to modern audiences. Iago, also plagued by jealousy, weaves a simple conspiracy as he convinces Othello that his new wife, Desdemona, is cavorting with a handsome officer. His jealousy intensified, Othello resorts to inflicting his own ``punishment'' upon his wife.
Irene Jacob, the French actress who was in the 1994 film ``Red,'' is a precise and direct Desdemona. Her halting reading of the lines makes them more discernible to modern audiences. The mix of accents, though, is an unfortunate distraction. In an opening scene, her father has an accent different from hers, which, when mixed with Branagh's Elizabethan reading and Fishburne's island sound, make for an odd lot.
Anna Patrick is particularly impressive in the usually overlooked role of Emilia.
By eliminating the military rivalry of Iago, the plot now plays as sexual rivalry between Iago and Othello. That's a new notion, and it gives novelty to the usual triangle.
Surprisingly, Oliver Parker, who adapted the script and is making his film directorial debut, has not let his stage background get in the way. While the production values are quite modest, he has still kept this very much a movie-movie. By use of camera movement, and especially close-ups of Fishburne's rage and anguish, he has prevented this from becoming a filmed stage play.
The raw presence of Fishburne, played against the polished artistry of Kenneth Branagh, is well worth watching. This is not a great ``Othello,'' yet it demands to be seen. ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
Jealousy leads to tragedy in ``Othello,'' starring, from left, Irene
Jacob, Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh.
Rated: R (brief nudity, violence)
Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Irene Jacob, Kenneth Branagh
Mal's rating: Three stars