January 19, 1996 in Seven

Branagh Too Overwhelming For ‘Othello’

By The Spokesman-Review
 

No one gives the lines of William Shakespeare more of a contemporary ring than does Kenneth Branagh.

He may have his equal as a Shakespearean actor (Ian McKellan, anyone?), but Branagh - through his movies “Henry V” and “Much Ado About Nothing” - has become his generation’s leading interpreter of Britain’s Bard.

This is good, of course. Just as there is nothing more tiresome and pretentious than bad Shakespeare, there are few things more thrilling than a Shakespearean soliloquy spoken by an actor who actually understands the words.

The bad part in terms of Branagh is that he typically outshines anyone with whom he shares a scene.

In Oliver Parker’s adaptation of “Othello,” Branagh virtually owns the screen whenever he walks on.

That he does so without playing the title character is no surprise. He is Iago to Laurence Fishburne’s Othello, and Iago has always been the play’s most gloriously manipulative and intriguingly evil character.

But that he does so in this particular production doesn’t do his fellow actors, nor Shakespeare, any favors. In Branagh’s defense, we can blame Parker for that.

Parker has bragged in interviews that he eliminated some 70 percent of Shakespeare’s dialogue for this film. He also has said that he wanted to emphasize the doomed love affair between the Moor of Venice and his bride, Desdemona.

That must be why this production of “Othello” is being advertised as “a gripping erotic thriller” (which, if nothing else, explains the film’s R rating).

Shades of “The Scarlet Letter.”

Actually, what Parker has come up with isn’t quite as bad as that Roland Joffe-directed travesty. It does, after all, boast Branagh and a few other bona fide Shakespearean players such as Nathaniel Parker (the director’s brother) as Cassio and Anna Patrick (Nathaniel Parker’s wife) as Emilia.

However, the lead players, Fishburne and French actress Irene Jacob as Desdemona, aren’t in their company. A good actor in other parts, Fishburne here merely demonstrates that he must have attended the slow-and-mannered school of speaking Shakespeare. Jacob, not surprisingly, has troubles with lines that even native speakers can’t say with much conviction.

With both actors conspicuously absent even when they are on screen, Branagh grabs any scene that he is in. Which begs a question: If director Parker changed most of the dialogue, why not do the same with the title? The real spurned lover here seems to be the same character who sets the whole tragic affair in motion.

And that, of course, is Iago.

Under the best of circumstances, Othello seems more than a bit … well, dense. And gullible. Here, he just seems silly.

But it’s a dangerous kind of silliness. One that Iago, portrayed by the supremely talented Branagh, whips into a genuine frenzy only when the camera fills with his own thin-lipped visage.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: These 2 sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “Othello” **-1/2 Location: Lyons cinemas Credits: Directed by Oliver Parker, adapted from the play by William Shakespeare; starring Laurence Fishburne, Kenneth Branagh and Irene Jacob Running time: 2:05 Rating: R

2. OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Othello:” David Hunter/The Hollywood Reporter: Debut director Oliver Parker takes the shears to the Bard’s text, but the powerful tale is reworked effectively into an almost unbearably sad experience that ought to earn the lead performers a trip to the Oscars. Bob Strauss/Los Angeles Daily News: A movie-savvy cast and director-adapter Oliver Parker have made the latest “Othello” one of the most entertaining and accessible Shakespeare films ever. Its streamlined narrative, naturalistic acting and emphasized sensuality may make some purists gag, but this is nonetheless vibrant, engrossing proof that Shakespeare is as gripping today as 400 years ago.

These 2 sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “Othello” **-1/2 Location: Lyons cinemas Credits: Directed by Oliver Parker, adapted from the play by William Shakespeare; starring Laurence Fishburne, Kenneth Branagh and Irene Jacob Running time: 2:05 Rating: R

2. OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Othello:” David Hunter/The Hollywood Reporter: Debut director Oliver Parker takes the shears to the Bard’s text, but the powerful tale is reworked effectively into an almost unbearably sad experience that ought to earn the lead performers a trip to the Oscars. Bob Strauss/Los Angeles Daily News: A movie-savvy cast and director-adapter Oliver Parker have made the latest “Othello” one of the most entertaining and accessible Shakespeare films ever. Its streamlined narrative, naturalistic acting and emphasized sensuality may make some purists gag, but this is nonetheless vibrant, engrossing proof that Shakespeare is as gripping today as 400 years ago.


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