O (2001)

*. That’s O as in OJ. Or Orenthal James Simpson. That Odin James, the star athlete here, has the same initials is surely just a coincidence.
*. I jest. The parallels between the Simpson case and the story of Othello were obvious and much remarked upon at the time this film came out (the Simpson trial concluding in 1995). It’s clear that the makers were plugging straight into it. And yet . . .
*. And yet listening to the commentary by director Tim Blake Nelson and the interviews with Nelson and the cast included with the DVD there is no mention whatsoever to O.J. Simpson. I find this to be a conspicuous omission and I’m not sure what explains it.
*. The other big headline tie-in for O was the school shooting at Columbine, which happened in 1999. That’s after this movie was filmed, but since it happened just at the time it was going to come out, the release date had to be pushed back over a year.
*. This (school violence) is a subject Nelson does talk about, and at one point during the commentary he even specifically compares Odin and Hugo to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (the Columbine killers). The thing is, where the O.J. Simpson connection is obvious, and I think significant, I don’t see anything meaningful in viewing O as a story relating to school violence. Is that really what this story is about? I don’t think so.
*. Whatever the subtext, I think this is an intelligent adaptation of Othello that works on most levels. Othello is Odin James, a star high school basketball player. Iago is Hugo, son of the coach (“Duke” Goulding, “or The Duke, as he is called”). Desdemona is Desi. There’s a handkerchief. Some of the lines are closely followed but translated into the vernacular. Like: “Reputation? Who gives a fuck about reputation?”
*. There are of course some changes, but I thought most of them made sense. Hugo, for example, is motivated by jealousy over his father’s love of Odin. This is believable and helps simplify the play in a way that was probably necessary. And while Hugo’s plan at the end is overly complicated, at least he has one. I’m not sure Iago had any vision of where all this was getting him.

*. One change I didn’t care for, or understand, was the business with the doves and the hawk. This struck me as laboured and unclear. Odin is a hawk (because he’s not like the other birds, being the only black student at this school), but Hugo is also a bird of prey among the innocents. Whatever. I never cared for John Woo’s birds either.
*. Another thing I didn’t “get” was the introduction of the date-rape scene. There is no corresponding event in the play, and it’s presented so awkwardly here that it makes me wonder why they bothered.
*. Here’s the set-up. Desi and Odin escape on a planned getaway to a motel. In order to have sex. In case there is any doubt about consent, Desi makes herself clear before things get started: “I want you to do what you want with me. I want you to have me however you want. I want to give myself to you the way you want me. Don’t hold back.”
*. They do have sex. Desi gets on top for a while, then they settle into some basic missionary. At some point she asks him to stop, though it isn’t clear what he’s doing that she objects to. This later leads to a discussion over whether what happened was date rape.
*. The interpretation of all this is difficult. For what it’s worth, Desi is emphatic that it wasn’t rape. But I couldn’t figure out why they introduced such muddy waters in the first place.
*. The cast is decent, with the exception of Josh Hartnett’s performance. That’s not to say Hartnett does a bad job, it’s just that the way he plays the part of Hugo seems wrong to me. And I’m assuming that was by design.
*. Is this just a matter of taste? After all, many reviewers found Hartnett’s understated approach impressive, and Nelson praises the performance as expressive of “charm and intelligence.” But I still think it’s a mistake. The thing is, Hugo really has to come off as someone who is well liked and capable of inspiring trust in others. Think of how often Iago is described as “honest” in Othello. Does Hugo seem honest to you? I can’t believe anyone would trust him for a minute. Even the hapless Roger should have seen right through him.
*. This restraint is also expressed in the direction. At one point on the commentary Nelson refers to how “the feel of the filmmaking here is very determined, careful, deliberate, and rational as well,” in order to mirror Hugo’s plotting. That’s defensible, but again I think it works against what the film needs, which is a faster rhythm, pulling us along in the fateful undertow. Despite not being a long movie, it moves through a lot of plot at a sedate pace.
*. Julia Stiles seems to have been the go-to girl for Shakespeare adaptations at this time. She was in the Taming of the Shrew rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and a modern-dress Hamlet (2000) around the same time. I wonder if that was all by chance.
*. There’s a scene in English class where the kids are being taught Shakespeare. Obviously if they’d been reading Othello that would have been a little too obvious, so instead they’re doing Macbeth. But when the teacher gets upset at Hugo and Odin talking in class, she rounds on them and asks “Would either one of you care to name one of Shakespeare’s poems?” Why? Why would they be talking about Shakespeare’s poetry in a class on Macbeth? And while Shakespeare wrote two long narrative poems that had titles, his best-known poems are his sonnets, which didn’t have names, only numbers. This seems an odd slip for such an otherwise literate script.
*. It’s a hard movie to fault when you look at it piece by piece. As I’ve said, it’s a smart, literate adaptation. The performances are capable. The racial angle is effectively presented. Odin’s final lines, making a passionate appeal for some respect and not to be seen as a stereotype, are very strong and underline what I think should have been the main theme of the film. Hugo, however, sucks a lot of the life out of the proceedings and Nelson just doesn’t bring any spark to the direction. It’s definitely worth a look, but at the end of the day I can’t call it a success.

15 thoughts on “O (2001)

  1. fragglerocking

    Don’t think I’d like to see this. All these modernisations of Shakespear don’t seem to ever come out quite right from what you write about them. Josh Hartnett though, one of my faves but he looks uite young here.

      1. Bookstooge

        I enjoyed it but afterwards realized they were idiots instead of doing well on purpose. It kind of took the enjoyment out of it for me. I watched it twice and that was more than I should have…

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