It's no accident that the four cinematic treatments of Shakespeare that purists love most are Grigori Kozintsev's Russian-language "Hamlet" and "King Lear," and Akira Kurosawa's Japanese fantasias on "Lear" ("Ran") and "Macbeth" Throne of Blood").
Without Shakespeare's sacred, inviolable text, we can enjoy these movies without comparisons to the originals. Even the finest English-language film treatments -- Olivier's "Henry V," "Richard III" and "Othello" -- have been subject to mean-spirited quibbling from the Shakespearean Comintern.
Oliver Parker's film of "Othello," however, has been marketed as if it were not Shakespeare's. The film's trailers contain no references to Shakespeare, telling us only that "Othello" is the "story of a hero driven into jealous rage with tragic consequences." The trailer and a sexy poster also sell "Othello" as an interracial love story, one that scratches the central itch in the American psyche: The film contains a love scene between a young black man with a muscular body (Laurence Fishburne) and a young white woman who is all soft, inviting curves and a face like a pre-Raphaelite Madonna (Irene Jacob). Only when the credits roll -- and pretty far down, at that -- is there a parenthetical reference (in small letters), "Adapted from the play: The Tragedy of Othello by William Shakespeare."
The play is so severely cut that even someone familiar with the story may experience jolts and starts as the film begins. Someone new to "Othello" may not have a clue for several minutes about what is happening. And while most of the words are Shakespeare's, Mr. Parker, whose screenplay this is, has rearranged the poet's lines freely and taken a machete to his iambic rhythms.
But for better or for worse (and it's mostly the former) Mr. Parker's "Othello" is basically Shakespeare's. All the familiar characters are here: Othello, the heroic but naive outsider; Desdemona, his beautiful and almost angelically pure bride; and the villainous Iago, who -- chiefly for his own amusement, it seems -- weaves from their goodness the web that ensnares and destroys them. The painful epiphanies of the play are those of the movie: that Othello exchanges Desdemona for Iago and trades the generous view of human nature he shares with her for the debased one of Iago.
It is Iago, in a dazzling performance by Kenneth Branagh (perhaps the best since Frank Finlay's in Olivier's "Othello"), that is the film's particular joy. Branagh's Iago, speaking to the audience through the intimate relationship he enjoys with the camera, takes a pleasure and pride in his work that implicates us in his treachery. He is a master comedian, and the gales of laughter that greeted some of his machinations at a preview showing testified to the skill with which Branagh brings to life the greatest of the jesters in the Shakespearean pack.
It's scarcely a disgrace, therefore, that Fishburne's Moor does not measure up against Branagh's "demi-devil."
Fishburne is a fine actor who convinces us of Othello's nobility of spirit. But his inexperience with Shakespeare's language sometimes betrays him: He sounds stilted where Branagh sounds natural; his too matter-of-fact repetition in "But yet the pity of it, Iago! O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!" misses its pathos; and in "Put out the light, and then put out the light," he sounds the second time as if he still means the candle and not Desdemona's life.
Jacob is a wonderful Desdemona, affecting in her hurt confusion at the transformation in her husband and using her Swiss-French accent to make the character all the more touchingly vulnerable.
And Parker keeps the film moving along -- if at a sometimes spasmodic pace -- and he displays a sensitive feel for the splendors of Venice, which is where the play begins and where much of the film was shot.
L Starring Laurence Fishburne, Kenneth Branagh and Irene Jacob
Directed by Oliver Parker
Released by Castle Rock
Rated R (violence, sensuality)