Shakespeare on Film: Oliver Parker’s Othello

Adapting a Shakespearean play to the screen is a difficult task for any filmmaker.  True, the raw material is already there, and in the case of a play like Othello, the essential story is well known.  Unless one wishes to put on a four-hour epic, however, changes must be made, and whenever one tampers with Shakespeare’s work, the challenge is to do it well.  In his 1995 film, Othello, Oliver Parker has accomplished this task admirably.  It is a film that succeeds both as an interpretation of Shakespeare and as a compelling film.

Othello is a tragedy based on the corrosive power of jealousy.  Its title character is a Moorish soldier in the service of Venice, sent to Cyprus to deal with a Turkish invasion just after marrying Desdemona, a Venetian noblewoman.  Othello is secretly hated by one of his leading officers, Iago.  Thinking that Othello had taken advantage of his own wife, Iago forges chains of deceit that ensnare Othello, Desdemona, and all close to them.

The script is a fine redaction of Shakespeare’s play.  Several whole scenes, and much supporting dialogue, was removed, but without any substantive loss to the story.  Incidental dialogue was often pared down, removing the metric cadence in the process, but lengthier and more important speeches and exchanges largely retain the meter, and therefore the musicality, of Shakespeare’s original words.  Some redundancies were removed, but overall, the script retains the flavor of the original, and is therefore a faithful adaptation.

This production is more overtly cinematic than many.  Some scenes, such as the marriage of Othello and Desdemona and the belated consummation of their marriage, have been added to show what was otherwise told or inferred.  Some scenes, in the dramatic sense, have been broken down into a couple of separate scenes, in the cinematic sense, to provide a sense of the passage of time and to make the film flow more like a movie than like a recorded play.

Parker has also used some fine examples of visual imagery to amplify the scene or even to replace a bit of explanatory material.  For example, Iago twice uses chess pieces to demonstrate his game plan; in anticipation of his efforts to separate Othello from his wife, he interposes a white knight between the black king and the white queen, while later, when the time has come to see his designs through to the end, he casts the latter two pieces into a pond.  This latter image foreshadows the final shots of the film, in which two bodies, presumably those of Othello and Desdemona, were given a burial at sea.  More poignant still is the image of Othello extinguishing the lights in his bedchamber, suggesting as it does that he means to do much the same to his wife.  Parker succeeds in contributing the unique poetry of the screen to the poetry that already exists in the play.

In terms of performance, this is a rich film indeed.  All of the parts were enacted well, and all parts of any significance, exquisitely so.  The success of the film, however, was chiefly in the hands of its three principals: Laurence Fishburne as Othello, Irene Jacob as Desdemona, and Kenneth Branagh as Iago.  All three played their parts masterfully, both singly and in relation to each other.

Laurence Fishburne was thoroughly convincing as Othello.  From the slightly exotic accent that he affected, drawing attention to the fact that Othello was not speaking his native tongue, to the demeanor of a military commander that underlies nearly all of his relationships, Fishburne inhabited the role fully.  A telling example of his work is the scene in the armory, corresponding to Act III, scene iii in the play; as Iago sows the seeds of doubt and jealousy in Othello’s mind, Fishburne’s expressions and tone of voice carry the audience through that mind, showing plainly how confidence and trust gave way to worry.  Fishburne gave a striking portrayal of Othello’s struggle with his conscience as the time for Desdemona’s murder drew near, showing regret and determination in turn.

Irene Jacob gave a most moving performance as Desdemona.  The audience was never in doubt about the profundity of her love for Othello, even to the very end, intensifying the pathos of her undeserved death.  Perhaps her most compelling scene is that corresponding to Act IV, scene i, when her uncle Gratiano and cousin Lodovico arrived in Cyprus.  For the first time, Othello’s brewing displeasure came into view, and all the more startlingly because it was shown so publicly.  The shock and dismay that she showed when she protested that she did not deserve such treatment are actually more potent than her crying as she subsequently sought the aid of Emilia and Iago, because she so clearly struggled to restrain herself before her visiting family members.

Kenneth Branagh, however, seems to steal the show as the villain Iago.  Much like his performance as Reinhard Heydrich in the HBO production Conspiracy, Branagh succeeds in balancing charm and cruelty, wit and wickedness.  In some ways, Iago is the fulcrum of the play: as the master puppeteer, it is his devilish plans that create all of the misery, while his regular asides make him almost a narrator.  Branagh took on these duties with evident relish, enjoying the role of knave for a change.  His shifting expressions at the end, when his malice has been uncovered and Othello stabbed him without killing him, are a most effective example: when the initial wave of pain has passed, a look of smug superiority replaced it.  For that moment, Iago clearly thought that the hated Moor had failed in his revenge, and took a final bit of pleasure in the thought.

The production values in this film are of the highest order.  It is set in the historically correct period; it seems likely to correspond to the battle of Lepanto in 1571, which incidentally makes it contemporary with Shakespeare’s own lifetime.  In its visual components, such as set design and costuming, it clings closely to historical accuracy, so as to draw the viewer into the setting and to make the events seem real – and not, instead, to make them seem like events played out on a stage, which would serve to distance the viewer from those events.

Interestingly, the soundtrack is quite muted in this film.  Unless the scene included music as part of the performance, such as the banquet scene, music was kept unobtrusive when it was performed at all.  Lengthy portions of the film contain no music.  Perhaps, in part, this was done to prevent the intrinsic musicality of the language from being overwhelmed by an orchestra.  In part, however, it might also have been done to increase the impact of the music when it did appear.  As Desdemona’s world starts to collapse around her, the melody written for her mournful song plays in the background; it plays again, much louder, when her body and Othello’s are consigned to the sea.

All of the components of filmmaking merged into a single, masterful effort.  Nothing detracts from the final product.  Oliver Parker has created one of the great adaptations of Shakespeare of this era.


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