Home » The DVD Bin » Othello (1995)

Othello (1995)

Anyone else in the mood for some Shakespeare?

Tonight’s entry concerns the 1995 adaptation of Othello, starring the great Laurence Fishburne in the title role. Opposite him in the role of Iago is Kenneth Branagh, who of course goes together with Shakespeare like Budweiser’s advertising firm and the Super Bowl. Between them is Desdemona, played by Irene Jacobs, an actress with an outstanding reputation and several awards to her name in her native France.

On the other hand, this adaptation was written for the screen and directed by Oliver Parker. This was Parker’s feature directing debut, before he made such films as An Ideal Husband, Fade to Black, St. Trinian’s and its sequel, and Johnny English Reborn. Of the ten films he’s made to date, all of them — including this one — were box office failures. Then again, Othello did get a very limited release against such high-profile films as Heat, Jumanji, and Waiting to Exhale. Hell if I know what excuses his other stinkers had, though.

I was very interested to see if this film would be dragged down by its clearly incompetent auteur, or if the sheer quality of the cast could make the film work despite him.

Before going any further, I should point out that “Othello” is one of the Shakespeare plays that I claim no prior exposure to. And honestly, I like it that way. It’s an easy thing to mess up The Bard’s dialogue, and a key factor in any Shakespearean production is in how the narrative is clarified. As such, I sincerely love the discovery of a new Shakespeare play, since it lets me judge how accessible a production is to someone with no prior knowledge of the narrative, the themes, or the wordplay. How this film succeeds at that, let me count the ways.

First of all, it must be repeated that the lead actors are top-notch. Fishburne delivers an extraordinary performance, at all times delivering a proud and impulsive fire as befits a great war general, not to mention an affectionate lover. That latter part is particularly essential, since Othello’s love of Desdemona is the driving force of the play. The whole point of this tragedy is to show how overwhelming passion might easily override the senses, turning love into destruction (see also: “Romeo & Juliet”). It’s an arc that Fishburne plays with all the gusto of a seasoned pro.

That said, Branagh is easily the star of this picture. He plays Iago like a force of nature, whose whims can change in an instant and whose intentions are unknown to anyone (except for us, but I’ll get to that later). It’s a fascinating thing to watch Iago so easily manipulate everyone around him, deftly setting up the characters to unknowingly deceive and betray each other. Put simply, this is a performance that must be seen to be believed.

Unfortunately, these two are really the only characters worth writing home about. For example, Desdemona and Cassio (the latter is played by the director’s brother, Nathaniel Parker) are probably the two most boring characters in the cast. Then again, that’s hardly their fault, but that’s the point. Out of all the pawns involved in Iago’s plot, these two are the only ones who are completely innocent. They were viciously slandered with absolutely no cause, and they both suffered despite their absence of ill intent toward anyone. Unfortunately, this means that the characters are only interesting in the context of the larger plot. By themselves, the characters’ absolute purity isn’t nearly as interesting as the conflicted Othello or the bastardly Iago.

This lack of nuance is particularly hurtful to Desdemona, but Irene Jacob brings something that helps make her performance memorable: Scorching chemistry with Fishburne. When the two of them are together at the start of the film, they look and act to all the world like a young couple of newlyweds full of life and optimism for the future. More importantly, theirs appears to be an impulsive love, the kind that’s both the most passionate and the most prone to fade quickly. Playing the marriage in such a way was a brilliant move, as it allows Othello — and us — to buy into the remote possibility that Desdemona might be unfaithful.

I sincerely wish I knew what happened to Oliver Parker’s career, because this film was beautifully directed. The adapted script was perfectly paced, and Parker included some wonderful visual motifs here and there. He even added a few brief scenes, which only enhanced the deep passion between Othello and Desdemona, not to mention the former’s deteriorating mental and emotional state.

I was also deeply impressed with the score, which very nicely helped establish atmosphere from the first frame. The camera set-ups were also superb, particularly in the film’s use of close-up shots.

This brings me to the movie’s true hidden weapon: The asides. Iago (and Othello, to a much lesser extent) breaks the fourth wall constantly to explain and justify what he does. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but Branagh and Parker totally make it work. In how the shots are framed and in how Branagh looks toward the camera, we the audience are effectively transported into the scene every time Iago speaks to us. Oftentimes, Iago could just be looking toward the camera without saying a word, and it still makes for an immersive experience.

I should also add that the asides are absolutely essential to the movie, as they’re the only time when Iago shows his true villainous colors. We get to see what Iago is like without his falsely kind demeanor, which only strengthens the contrast between the two sides. Even better, Iago is telling us things that he keeps very well hidden from everyone else in the play. This gives us a twisted kind of emotional connection to Iago, like we’re his confidantes and partners in conspiracy.

All told, Othello is a production worthy of its cast. It’s beautifully staged, briskly paced, and masterfully performed. It’s worth seeing just for Kenneth Branagh’s performance, though Laurence Fishburne turns in phenomenal work as well. This film comes highly recommended, especially to fans of The Bard.


  1. Ping from Anonymous:

    Why cant we watch it

  2. Ping from Curiosity Inc.:

    I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Leave a Reply