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OTHELLO. Directed and adapted from Shakeapeare by Oliver Parker; produced by Luc Roog and David Barron for Castle Rock. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Fishburne and Irene Jacob. Rated R.


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There is plenty of tabloid-pleasing action in most of Shakespeare's plays—domestic violence, murder, adultery, forbidden marriages. And Othello is one of the most lurid.

Most productions take an (often) excessively high road when it comes to the Bard, and bury the salacious details in what seems to the TV generation, at least, to be mountains of blank verse.

In this Othello, however, director/adapter Parker has actually managed to balance fairly well the sensational aspects of the story—interracial romance, murder and suicide—with the beauty of the play's poetry.

Now, as with every compromise, some viewers will be unhappy. Some MTV-ers will say there's still too much talk and not enough action, some Shakespearean purists will lament the removed text. But if both groups can approach the theater with open minds, I think they'll both enjoy the movie.

Othello has a first-class cast, for one thing, in addition to the well-adapted script. Fishburne has always been an interesting and talented actor but has never shown any classical leanings. He does a good job with the language, though, and his physical presence is wonderfu—charismatic, menacing and pitiable, all at once.

Jacob's accent (she is Swiss) takes a little getting used to, but she makes the doomed Desdemona a much stronger and more appealing character than the "usual" Othello productions do. Branagh obviously enjoys playing the evil Iago, finding a good deal of black humor in the villain who causes Othello's downfall almost, it seems, for the fun of it.

I got the oddest feeling towards the end of the full-house preview showing I attended, that can give you an idea of how involving these characters are, in spite of the "unnaturalness" of their language. It seemed to me that we (me, too!) were all silently begging for a Scarlet Letter-type of revision of the ending: "He's not REALLY going to kill her, is he?"

Happily, for the integrity of the play, if not for Othello and Desdemona, the tragedy remains intact. But our hoping for a miracle isn't just a modern impatience with "downer" endings. I think that's precisely the effect that Shakespeare was aiming for, nearly 400 years ago.

February 14, 1996

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