*. You know your Shakespeare and you know what you want your Shakespeare to look and sound like. You want the straight text, without any cuts or rearrangements. You want period dress, not some reimagining of the story in Victorian or contemporary costume. You don’t want a Shakespeare movie to look like a movie, you want a production shot on stage, with lots of long takes and no fancy camera tricks. Maybe the odd close-up, but that’s it.
*. Well, even if that isn’t what you want it’s what you get here, as Laurence Olivier no longer had the clout to get the budget to make a proper movie out of Othello. So instead they shot the currently-running National Theatre Company production, using the same sets and not so much as bothering to add a musical score. I’m not sure if anyone even thought they were making a movie. People shout their lines and their gestures all remain exaggerated and oversize, which is right for the stage but looks hammy on a big screen.
*. It’s a production today that will appeal to the purist, being a barely altered text that even includes most of the lines that are almost always cut. The cast is stage royalty, and snagged Academy Award nominations in all four acting categories. It also marks the screen debut of Derek Jacobi.
*. That said, and without wanting to be contrary, I don’t care much for the performances. To each their own, but here are my reasons.
*. Olivier plays Othello in blackface, which, while not something we need be offended by today, does look ridiculous by modern standards. They also didn’t get it right for the lighting, as his skin has a sickly greyish tinge that recalls the shopping-mall zombies from Dawn of the Dead.
*. Aside from his appearance, I didn’t like his portrayal of the Moor. He was aiming for something exotic with his voice and mannerisms, and got it, but I don’t know how well any of it works or fits with the play. His gait makes him look like he’s injured, and from his first appearance smelling a flower he comes across as conceited, even foppish. There’s little of Othello’s requisite gravitas and more of a smirking, cocksureness in the early scenes. Pauline Kael: “As a lord, this Othello is a bit vulgar — too ingratiating, a boaster, an arrogant man.” A bit like I imagine Cassio should be played. Then, after being emotionally poisoned by Iago, he turns into a gibbering wreck, unbalanced but not dignified.
*. Maggie Smith is miscast. For starters, she looks too old. She was thirty at the time, but she’s one of those actors who has always looked older or more mature than her age (Angela Lansbury is another, someone who could have played a grandmother in her twenties). My reading of Othello is that Desdemona is young and naive, drawn to a much older man (Olivier was in his late 50s so that part is right). Desdemona is also a head-turner of a beauty. She is a major prize that Othello has won, and she’s the kind of beauty that other men notice and that makes their husbands jealous. That’s not Maggie Smith. She does do pathetic well at the end though.
*. Even if you don’t agree with this reading of Smith, it’s hard not to feel that she fails to express any sort of passion for her husband. In the early scenes she seems almost repelled by him. It’s so glaring it makes me wonder what she was thinking. I can only imagine a director yelling out “Come on, Maggie! You’re supposed to be head over heels in love with this guy!”
*. Frank Finlay would be OK as Othello in most productions, but here he feels out of place, as the only serious character in the film. He is surrounded by fops and fools. Kael calls him “pale, parched little Iago,” but he looks like he could beat the tar out of the rest of the cast with one hand. He also doesn’t have any of Iago’s charm and charisma. Who would be sucked in by such an obviously nasty piece of work?
*. Derek Jacobi as Cassio is a lightweight, foppish character. I doubt anyone could have pulled the part off while labouring under that wig, but he still overplays it (that is, indulges in stage acting). This is especially noticeable in the big scene where he gets drunk. I also didn’t like this scene because it’s quite obvious that there’s nothing in their flagons and cups. Of course there wouldn’t be in a stage production, but as I’ve already said, didn’t they know they were making a movie?
*. Joyce Redman does her best with Emilia, a minor role that is hard to get right because it’s not that coherent in the play. Unfortunately, her one big scene in Act 4 is cut completely. She does get to play the lines in the previous scene that show her awareness of her husband’s perfidy though.
*. I don’t usually call out those places in movies where you can see a dead person still breathing if you look really hard, but at the end here, after Othello has killed himself and fallen on top of Desdemona’s corpse, you can see a corner of his bright white tunic lying against his black skin and it’s obviously moving in and out with his breath. It’s near the center of the screen and the contrast makes it unmissable. Indeed, it’s hard to take your eye off it as it moves in and out. I can’t understand why someone didn’t see that. Did they not know they were making a movie?
*. I don’t care much for this film, because it’s not much of a film. It’s the opposite of Orson Welles’s 1951 version, which scrambled and even ignored the text at times in order to overwhelm us with a startling visual rhythm and style. Welles’s Othello was also the result of working with limited resources, though in his case it made the production of the film paradoxically more expansive, shooting in various locations over a period of years. But Welles took these limitations and made something fresh and totally cinematic out of them. This Othello is so visually dull, and so determinedly un-cinematic, you want to look away.
*. Stuart Bruge was mostly a stage and TV director. The only other major Shakespeare film of his that I know of was the 1970 Julius Caesar, which was awful. He doesn’t seem to have been much interested in what film could do, and to be honest I found myself just wanting to have this movie on in the background while I made dinner, so that I could listen to it as I would to a radio play.
*. To all of this the usual defence is that it’s the film of a staged play and so you have to judge it as such. True, but that’s not the kind of thing I go to the movies to see. I think I might have liked this Othello on stage, but I’d have been happy if it had stayed there too.