+ Recommended – R, Drama
Oliver Parker’s version of Othello (1995) should be considered a faithful adaptation. While the film takes many risks, most of those risks are perfectly handled and blend with the story well. Laurence Fishburne plays the title character, Othello, and is supported by a very strong performance from Kenneth Branagh as Iago.
Of all the well-handled risks, the strongest comes from the constant 4th wall breaks from Iago: “I hate the Moor.” After reading the play and watching the numerous alternative film versions, it was safe to say that a breach of the hidden veil was unexpected. However, in the context of a stage performance, the 4th wall breaking does bridge the gap between the audience and the text; furthering the audience’s experience with the classic text. I can understand, then, why Parker chose to go down this route.
An even larger risk came when Othello delivers a line that shatters the wall. And as brief as these couple scenes may be, they are stand-outs and arguably the best portion of the film. An interesting dynamic to point out: Othello wasn’t completely upfront with Desdemona (his love interest) and yet when Othello was talking to the audience he did show his true intentions, much like Iago did. Each of these characters are heavily flawed but the story stays loyal to them until the end.
Another piece of scenery (the chess game) indicates that Iago, a knight, will take down the king. For a brief second, the film, and the play, asks the audience for empathy on behalf of Iago due to his mistreatment by Othello. Othello brags about the stories he has been a part of and the journeys he has endured over the years. He talks of his mightiness and even considers himself to be a stable and humble man, although by the end of the play the audience knows different. Parker wants us to like Othello, but also to realize that he is a flawed human just like Iago. This all trails back to the point of comparison between the two characters and why the story revolves around them.
Many key visuals are implemented in the film to cement the ideas of adultery and racial tension. The title of the play, Othello: The Moor of Venice, reminds audiences that Othello has two distinct identities: a heroic figure, but also a foreigner. In many instances Parker uses a combination of white and black colors to emphasize that Othello isn’t the same as everyone else in terms of color. A love scene that takes place between Othello and Desdemona shows the color of the skin in contrast to one another as Othello grips Desdemona’s hand, blatantly visualizing the color difference between a white Desdemona and the foreigner, Othello.
Another key visual can be found in the same love scene; a red, rose petal lay on the bed in the background. Parker has placed this here to convey the underlying theme of adultery and innocence being lost. Throughout the entire play, Iago makes constant sexual references in regards to Desdemona. He leads Othello to believe she has been unfaithful to him. Much like Shakespeare’s words, Parker utilizes the visual aspects of film to convey this underlying theme. Just another reason this adaptation is successful.
Finally, the use of “The Willow Song” from the pivotal scene between Desdemona and Emilia was done subtly throughout the film as a precursor for the tragedy to come. You don’t recognize the music until the scene where Desdemona sings it for Emilia. However, the final scene uses the song for a brilliant score that crescendos into the credits. This foreboding track helps guide the film’s audience, some who may never have read Shakespeare, into the final portion of the play. It serves as the primary indication of the play’s tragedy.
These elements help Oliver Parker’s version of Othello remain effective for a modern-day audience and to become a faithful screen adaptation. One could only hope to achieve what Parker did when adapting Shakespeare. If nothing has sparked your love for Shakespeare, Othello (1995) might just be the movie to seek out.