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The Baltimore Sun



Thursday December 14, 1995

     Laurence Fishburne is superb as the noble Moor of Oliver Parker's sleek, refreshingly unpretentious "Othello." Fishburne has everything it takes to make Shakespeare's tragic hero work: talent, intellect, depth, imposing physical presence, innate dignity, handsomeness, sex appeal and a resonant voice. His Othello adds further luster to a notable, wide-ranging career highlighted by such indelible portrayals as his corrosive Ike Turner in "What's Love Got to Do With It" and the strong, loving father of "Boyz N the Hood."
     Although Parker has pared down the play, created a real movie out of it and made it as accessible as "Fatal Attraction," he has in fact celebrated rather than diminished the grandeur of Shakespeare's dialogue. He has allowed no theatrical flourishes, none of those tours de force of vocal inflections so beloved by the British that can strike American ears as distractingly artificial and mannered, and has instead gone for a simple eloquence in the way his actors speak that allows us to appreciate the full majesty of Shakespeare's dialogue.
     He has said that he approached the play as an erotic thriller, and there is no question that the grand passion of Othello and Desdemona (Irene Jacob) ignites as well as illuminates Shakespeare's profound grasp of how fate and human psychology can conspire in intricate, inevitable fashion to bring about tragedy.
     Racism, that persistent evil, triggers the downfall of Othello as much as his own jealousy in Parker's telling. Othello may be one of Venice's most celebrated warrior mercenaries, but he is a black man. Desdemona's father Brabantio (Pierre Vaneck), a Venetian nobleman, is not only quick to express his outrage over her elopement but also to say cruelly to Othello: "She has deceived her father--and may thee."
     At the outset, therefore, the seed of jealousy has been planted in Othello's mind. It won't blossom until Iago (Kenneth Branagh), furious at being passed over as Othello's right-hand man after a decade in his service, starts fanning it in earnest. You have got to believe that Iago would not have embarked on such a relentless, despicable course of revenge had his master not been black.
     Ironically, were not Desdemona so truly pure in character she might well have detected Iago's infernal machinations long before her bridegroom was blinded by jealousy. Yet surely Othello would not be so quickly consumed by such destructive emotions were he not so subjected to bigotry.
     Parker has surrounded Fishburne, who shaved his head and wore a beard and tattoos for the part, with a first-rate ensemble of players. Fishburne adopts a cultivated, understated English accent that blends well with a predominantly British cast, and Jacob's own slight French accent is unimportant when measured against the radiance and poise she brings to Desdemona. The key to Fishburne's admirable portrayal is that he has managed to bring meaning to his every word of dialogue, thus setting a standard for clarity essential for comprehending Shakespearean usage, so much of which has vanished from English discourse.
     With his disarming, open-faced good looks and warm manner, Branagh is able to underline Iago's infamy, even allowing him a few stricken glances to suggest that he might well have flashes of regret over what he has set in motion. Anna Patrick brings out the full measure of ambivalence in her Emilia, Desdemona's lady-in-waiting, who has the misfortune to be Iago's exploited wife. Nathaniel Parker's Cassio and Michael Maloney's Rodrigo, two more innocent victims of Iago's plotting, round out the key figures capably.
     Oliver Parker (Nathaniel Parker's brother) hasn't the image-making genius that Orson Welles was able to bring to his "Othello," but then who has? Yet his "Othello," photographed with an elegant simplicity by David Johnson amid authentic period settings and costumes in Italy, has a rich, cinematic fluidity. Most important, Parker has shown how involving and moving Shakespeare can still be on the screen.

Othello, 1995. R, for some sexuality. A Columbia release of a Castle Rock presentation of a Dakota Films/Imminent Films production. Director Oliver Parker. Producers Luc Roeg, David Barron. Executive producer Jonathan Olsberg. Adapted for the screen from the Shakespeare play by Parker. Cinematographer David Johnson. Editor Tony Lawson. Costumes Caroline Harris. Music Charlie Mole. Production designer Tim Harvey. Art directors Desmond Crowe, Livia Borgognoni. Set decorator Paul Weathered. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes. Laurence Fishburne as Othello. Irene Jacob as Desdemona. Kenneth Branagh as Iago. Anna Patrick as Emilia.

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