*. I’ve mentioned before the tension in Othello between the roles of the two leads and the way Iago tends to take over the play. Orson Welles’s 1951 version actually reverses the usual polarity, with his gruff and plus-size Moor dominating Micheál MacLiammóir’s somewhat weedy Iago. Of course, it probably helped that the film was Welles’s baby.
*. This version of the play achieves more of a balance. That isn’t how it was received, however, as most of the praise went to Kenneth Branagh’s Iago. Rita Kempley in the Washington Post put it most forcefully: “Kenneth Branagh doesn’t just steal the show; one suspects he might have sat in the director’s chair as well.”
*. Well, maybe he did. But I think not. This movie (directed by Oliver Parker, who, fun fact, first appeared on the big screen as one of the moving men in Hellraiser) doesn’t have the flair and quickness on its feet of one of Branagh’s productions at the time.
*. Is that a bad thing? I don’t know. I’m not sure if Branagh is really the man for tragedy. And overall, I’m of the opinion that Branagh’s Shakespeare films describe a long downhill slide. His Henry V remains his best of them, in my opinion. And I really liked parts of Much Ado About Nothing. By the time we got to Hamlet, however, something was clearly going wrong.
*. I started feeling a little too used to his performances as well. Sort of like a singer whose voice you once fell in love with but who, when you hear more of their stuff, you start to get tired of all the same vocal tricks and limited range. I think Branagh is a fine actor, but his particular habits — the way he mouths his wide-chopped lines, or the way he turns his misty eyes up to the sky — start to seem too familiar and repetitive after a while. It’s also disturbing that he has the same mannerisms no matter what the role.
*. In any event, I think Laurence Fishburne makes a good counterweight. He plays Othello in a different register, which works because the character is meant to be someone who’s a bit exotic. He also has a brooding gravitas that balances Iago’s false amiability. In short, it’s a good pairing.
*. The film was lauded for being sexy, though I wonder if it was sexy enough. Then again, as a general rule, Hollywood doesn’t do sexy well. What it does well is romance, which is something different. Think nice clothes, candles, exotic locations, hands gripping preternaturally clean sheets. I guess in the play Desdemona is a bit of a romantic princess, but I think for the jealousy and the taboo element to really work there needed to be more heat. That’s not a complaint particular to this production though, which does at least make gestures in the right direction. Almost all of the Desdemonas I’ve seen have been too pure and fragile.
*. So Iago dies at the end? I can see that satisfying the audience’s sense of justice, and I think it’s often been presented this way (on film, for example, in the 1922 version). But it seems to me that if you’re going to go with this ending you have to edit out the lines that make it clear that he survives. Here they’re left in, and the ending only seems an excuse for that final tableau on the bed, where I didn’t think Bianca really belonged. I do think Emilia is a sadly underwritten character in the play, I’d love to have more of her, but as it is she’s very much a supporting role.
*. It did very poor box office, in part due to not having a wide release and coming out over the Christmas holidays. In any event, something about it doesn’t work for me. Of course, enjoying tragedy, especially one as depressing as Othello, is a figure of speech that has to be unpacked. But everything about this production just seems too heavy.
*. Were they trying to be too faithful to the text? Welles cut the play to pieces and made a far better movie out of the scraps. This Othello seems afraid to take chances, and while a production that’s hard to fault for anything in particular, I don’t think it’s much of a movie.