“The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice” is one of Shakespeare’s most disturbingly haunting plays. It is an intense piece that serves as a showcase for the power of evil.
The villain in this tragedy is Othello’s evil servant, Iago, who engages in a brilliant psychological warfare with the other characters in the play and uses his sharp mental advantage to destroy all of them. He also operates with what appears to be a complete lack of motive. Shakespeare alludes to jealousy, infidelity and ambition as possible motivations for Iago’s malignancy, but in the end it appears as if Iago is simply an embodiment of evil. It is captivating to watch him systematically attack the brave moor Othello, his loyal and loving wife Desdemona, the noble servant Cassio, and the hopelessly love sick Roderigo. The play builds to a feverish pitch all masterminded by the puppeteer Iago and then ends in a bloody finale.
“O,” the recently released film from actor/director Tim Blake Nelson, bills itself as a modern adaptation of this play, which is set in an affluent preparatory high school. Nelson, who co-starred in the Coen brothers’ “O Brother Where Art Thou” as Delmar, has a solid plot and a stellar cast to work with. Unfortunately, these elements go completely to waste, as “O” is just a poorly executed rehash instead of a brilliant retelling.
“O” was actually completed in 1998, but because of the vast media attention concerning high school shootings, and the nature of some of the scenes, the release was pushed back until this year. This provides an interesting “before they were stars” glimpse at current headliners Julia Stiles and Josh Hartnett.
The way in which “O” adapts “Othello” to a modern setting is quite clever. The Othello character in this retelling is Odin James, played by Mekhi Phifer (“Shaft”). He is the only black student at an all white prep school, an ultrapopular and charming star basketball player, and is the boyfriend of Desi (Julia Stiles, “Save the Last Dance”). The Iago character is called Hugo, played by Josh Hartnett (“Pearl Harbor”).
The problem with “O” is that it lacks the passion and power of Shakespeare’s work. Hugo is given a transparent “daddy doesn’t love me so I’ll be a killer” motive and Desi lacks the presence of Desdemona; she just whines and frets a lot. The only standout performance is Phifer’s Odin. He at least appears to have read the play, and he nicely captures Othello’s “pride to the point of vice” tragic fate.
The movie escalates to a frenzied finale, one that is disturbing but also devoid of all the emotion of Shakespeare’s intention. Everyone and everything in the film seems to be held back from the intense performance that they should be able to attain. All of the ingredients for a great film are there but are never assembled effectively, and that is the tragedy of “O.”