Reviewed by: Jonathan DeMersseman
For those not familiar with the tale, “Othello” is the story of a Moor (Lawrence Fishburne)—that is, a man of black or dark-skinned—who is chosen to command the Venetian garrison on the island of Cyprus. He has recently handpicked his officers and, in doing so, has rejected a Venetian soldier named Iago (Kenneth Branagh), earning the latter’s undying hatred. To further complicate matters Othello has eloped with Desdemona (Iréne Jacob), the daughter of a Venetian senator, initially earning the curse of her father and her other suitors. Iago contrives to use these circumstances to destroy Othello.
Cinematically Oliver Parker’s Othello is quite good. Jacob does a great job creating a Desdemona of perfect wifely virtue and fidelity, which is integral part of the tragedy. Fishburne and Branagh also give excellent performances. Moreover, the character of Iago is particularly instructive for Christians; he is an archetype of Satan. Seeing how this villain manipulates the other characters could help the observant Christian avoid some of Satan’s deceptions in real life.
On the negative side, Othello contains much gratuitous sex (four scenes, two containing nudity, one of which shows the lead actress at a distance, fully disrobed from the front). The medium of film allows the director greater freedom with what the playwright left unsaid. Additionally, there is a fair amount of sexual innuendo in most Shakespeare plays-the Bard’s doing, not Oliver's. Othello is no exception. Fortunately, most of it is often obscured in the Elizabethan language of the production.
Owing to the negative elements, I cannot recommend Parker’s Othello. Nothing would please me more than to be able to endorse the study of Shakespeare to the public, especially young people. However, while the acting is first rate, the sex and lack of adherence to the text make it very inappropriate as an educational tool. If you are looking for Shakespeare, skip this one.
That being said, as an alternative, let me encourage you to seek out another presentation of the play, one that abides more closely to the text and does not seek to put a bizarre spin on the plot, as some directors are wont to do.