Film Review: Othello (1995)

“But yet the pity of it”

Oliver Parker’s directorial career has taken in glossy takes on Wilde in An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest as well as the St Trinian’s films and the recent Dad’s Army remake. But it all started in 1995 with this adaptation, and the word is used advisedly, of Othello. As with many cinematic Shakespearean ventures, it plays fast and loose with the text, cutting large amounts of it and then adding supplementary scenes because the director wants to impose a vision.

The publicity campaign for the film played down its classical roots, focusing instead on the interracial politics of its love story – a hot button topic for the US then, as it is still is now. And well it might, for Parker’s screenplay makes a crucial mistake in rupturing the natural rhythms of the speech, well above and beyond the trimming down which in and of itself, is never a bad thing. Instead, this version feels reductive and rebarbative as it mangles its way through the play.

Branagh is predictably strong as Iago, swept up in his own dastardly world but isolated by it too, he might as well be in a different play called Iago so firmly does he pull focus. It doesn’t help that the Swiss-French Irène Jacob’s Desdemona never feels comfortable in the verse. That said, neither does Augusta, Georgia native Laurence Fishburne as Othello himself, too often stilted and unpoetic in the face of Branagh’s devilishly charismatic turn.

But it’s the transformation of the story into a Hollywood narrative that rankles the most. Slotting in a tawdry sex scene, dream sequences, explanations where none are needed because of the cuts, silent dialogue under a swelling score when exposition might actually be handy…too much feels too difficult here for my liking. Nathaniel Parker (brother of Oliver) makes a good Cassio though and it’s fun to see the likes of Michael Sheen and Nicholas Farrell pop up. 

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