Reviewed By Thom
Posted 08/30/01 10:01:03

"Powerful retelling of Shakespeare's riveting tragedy, Othello"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

There isn't much that can be done to improve on Othello and any wise adaptation will keep to the script. That is just what writer, Brad Kaaya did when retelling this doomed love story. While avoiding any stylish overtones like Romeo+Juliet, O renames the characters and puts them in a private school. Othello is Odin (Mekhi Phifer), a basketball star and the only black man in an all white school. Iago is Hugo (Josh Hartnett) the son of coach Goulding (Martin Sheen). Hugo can't do anything to make his father happy because he'll never be as good a basketball player as Odin. If you know the story of Othello, what comes next is a series of betrayals, leading finally to murder and suicide.

The power of the original is kept by neither watering down the characters nor sparing the emotional trauma of the original. Verdi also adapted Othello for his eponymous opera. The film borrows a little from the operatic tradition and in a touch I thought was amusing just for using it, Desi's (Julie Stiles) death lasts long enough to sing an Aria.

What makes this version so moving is the youth of the characters and the familiar milieu. School violence has always been about some kind of revenge so putting a story about revenge into a high school brings tragedies like Columbine to the foreground. The coach is my personal nightmare, using humiliation to get the best performance out of his team. And the men are just inside that system of dominance and degradation, while the women are girlfriends or property. Fortunately, it was just a movie so there was a safe distance between me and having to deal with people who are like that for real. I hated high school because of the whole "jock as hero", "the school revolves around the boy's locker room" mentality. For boys like me, the locker room, in spite of its potential to be paradise, was hell. So if all the evil in the world is spawned in boys' locker rooms in high schools across America, then this is the perfect setting for Hugo and Odin.

The acting is superb and the tension is held tight by characters who don't equivocate. This film, like the play, is a very macho story. Men who desire the approval of their fathers, men who must negotiate to own the daughter, Men who must fight each other on a battlefield for the glory of men. There are only two women in this film and both of them get taken advantage of. Hugo uses Desi's roommate, Emily (Rain Phoenix) for the move that ultimately destroys everyone's lives.

O is an accessible modern retelling of Othello. If you can't get past Shakespearean English or operatic Italian, then you'll get the full emotional impact of this story with O. And if you can, you'll love the power that the story itself holds while appreciating the effective modernization. I imagine that in 1604, the cultural milieu would have had the same effect on an (by then) Jacobean audience.

We think of Shakespeare as an Elizabethan playwright but his life and his work spanned the reign of Elizabeth I and James I.
James I commissioned the King James Bible and is widely believed (much to the chagrin of modern Christian fundamentalists who treat the King James Version as the unquestoioned voice of God)to have been a homosexual. His intriguing life is part of a vast web of treachery and politicking mirrored in not just Othello but many of Shakespeare's plays. Where does this trail of blood begin and end?

James the First of England is the protestant son of the beheaded Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, "Blood Mary". Mary's beheading was commissioned by Elizabeth I, daughter of beheaded Anne Boleyn, sixth wife of Henry VII who created the church of England to authorize his own divorce. After the creation of the Church of England, known as the Anglican church or in the US, the Episcopalian Church, Henry proceeded to expel Catholics and seize monasteries at a vociferous rate. Mary would return this favor to the newly sanctioned English protestants after assuming the throne (by beheading the girl-queen Lady Jane Grey).

James did not inherit his mother's great love for the Vatican, but he did inherit his mother's great love for blood. He decried not only "papistry" but all religions he viewed as superstitious. Eventually, he passed the first law expressly forbidding witchcraft the same year Othello was performed for His Majesty. Coincidence? or Conspiracy? James' law was instrumental in the Protestant persecution of accused witches leading up to the infamous Salem trials a century later and wasn't repealed until the mid 18th century. This was one point where Catholics and Protestants shook hands in those bloody periods. Accused witches (who, by most account, weren't anything other than common peasants who still lingered over some of the old traditions passed down for centuries from pre-Christian Europe and through the Roman occupation), Jews and Muslims could all share the combined wrath of these two wrathful lobes of Western Christianity. Ongoing blood sacrifice, evidently, is required by their God.

The force and fury of the English social and political stage is completely vented through Othello, one of Shakespeare's four great tragedies.

You might not recognize the guns or the schoolyard bullying from Shakespeare, but you'll recognize the scarf that signs Desi's death warrant. When this hits video, every English teacher under 35 is going to use this in Senior Lit to get kids to understand that Shakespeare is not just a roadblock designed to prevent you from getting a high enough SAT score to get into the college of your choice but that it contains the brutal and sublime forces at work in the lives that shaped history. O remains faithful to the original intent while invoking the modern era and grim reminders of recent high school tragedies of mythic proportions.

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